Will tech giants muscle into the P3 space?

The likes of Facebook, Google and Microsoft have all come in contact with P3s but are we about to see a shift in their usage, asks senior reporter Jonathan Davies

Companies the size of big tech ultimately always end up with many fingers in many pies. Whether that’s Facebook launching a currency or Google’s self-driven cars, their reach, or gravitational pull, is enormous – and the P3 industry is not exempt.

Due to sheer scale of their office spaces and projects, the P3 model has been eyed by big tech as a way to bring forward projects of their own, or at least mold new ones around themselves.

In California, the home of many of these titans, Facebook has been teaming up with Plenary over the past couple of years to help bring forward the Dumbarton Rail Corridor P3, which would pass close by its headquarters – including helping to fund some feasibility studies. 

San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans), the authority overseeing the project, told P3 Bulletin in April that it is “actively encouraging Facebook to continue their commitment to the project at this critical time”, as it weighs using the Plenary-Facebook joint venture to deliver it.

Dale Bonner, executive chairman at Plenary Concessions, said earlier this year that the firm “remains committed to exploring options for continuing the critical predevelopment work that is well underway”.

Having companies of this size alliancing together with the public sector to get the most out of a project is nothing new, however.

In 2018, Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, began working on plans to develop the city’s Waterfront into a ‘smart’ neighborhood – utilizing their data and technology expertise to future-proof the area.

And with recent tenders like Georgia’s call for proposals as the city looks to prepare its infrastructure for connected automated vehicles, this expertise will be coveted. 

Teaming up with big tech isn’t just being done on the public sector side either – Microsoft and Mott MacDonald formed a partnership last year to lay the groundwork for future cloud-based infrastructure services.

Oliver Hawes, Mott MacDonald’s head of smart infrastructure, added: “Both our organizations believe that smart solutions have a positive impact on cities and asset owners, and improve design, delivery and through-life performance of infrastructure. Cities, government, asset owners, investors and society can all benefit hugely.”

But really it’s outside of the developed markets where big tech has started to show signals that it could utilize P3s on a new scale – rather than using the model to developing sites, they’re looking at developing economies.

Microsoft’s 4Africa, an initiative that looks to spread digital connectivity across the continent, has recently urged governments to form P3s to accelerate the technological revolution across Africa, adding that for “Africa to not just survive the current pandemic, but to thrive, investment into digital infrastructure is inevitable”.

“To breach the current digital divide, governments alone cannot achieve ambitious targets. It will take a strategic and considered set of P3s to achieve Africa’s ambitions to compete in the digital economy,” Ryno Rijnsburger, chief technology officer at Microsoft 4Africa, said.

“Public-private partnerships can form the cornerstone of a successful move to digitisation, and are an effective strategy for bringing together the resources and knowhow needed to deliver on digital transformation goals.”

It’s clear that the digital giants can bring impressive new assets to the infrastructure industry, and could well help pave the way for parts of its future – the question is, can the P3 industry harness this power?