True sustainability means building future-focused infrastructure

The infrastructure the world builds post-Covid must be economically, socially and technologically sustainable to meet current and future challenges, argues Joseph Losavio.

The ‘great reset’ post-Covid will be shaped by the infrastructure we plan, design and construct. And infrastructure development is likely to take a leading role in national economic recovery efforts in the wake of the pandemic. Historically, it has been a significant factor in catalysing economic growth. 

There is also a tide of opinion swelling towards the idea that the world we build after this pandemic needs to be significantly different to the one we had before. The dual economic and health shocks of 2020 seem to have increased the appetite for change, offering a rare window for radical thinking.

The infrastructure that results from this momentum must be the type of sustainable infrastructure that can help societies meet the challenges of the future. 

But what do we mean by sustainable? While often understood to mean environmentally sound, sustainable infrastructure has a much wider framing. These projects and systems must also be economically, socially and technologically sustainable to truly meet the moment and endure well beyond it. 

Six elements of sustainable infrastructure

1. Environmental resilience 

This includes mitigating the environmental impacts of projects as well as building-in resilience to the effects of climate change already underway. 

2. Benefit-sharing

Including communities in the planning and design process of infrastructure development, considering the needs of the socially and economically vulnerable and ensuring access to essential services to underserved communities to ensure the benefits are dispersed widely. 

3. Social acceptability

By engaging with all stakeholders to respect local sensitivities and understanding their needs, the resulting service will be affordable, will respect local customs and will integrate special groups where needed to preserve and enrich the social fabric of communities.

4. Economic and institutional effectiveness 

Safeguarding value-for-money leads to projects that are financially sustainable and fairly and transparently regulated. Focusing on this area can also embed knowledge and skills that can guide the development of future projects. 

5. Future-proofed

Future-proofed projects secure adequate maintenance for assets over their lifecycle and plan for aging and end-of-life management. This aspect is ever more important in our increasingly connected world, where futureproofing must also include considering the opportunities and risks of future technology and business model disruptions. 

6. Critical mass potential 

A vital component that improves strategic planning ability, replicability and financing scalability. This allows for successful projects that can be implemented repeatedly in different places, saving time and money in the development process. 

These qualities can help ensure that the infrastructure we build is sustainable in a variety of ways. While they are comprehensive and may seem ambitious, they are by no means impossible to achieve. 

There are many infrastructure projects built around the world already that can serve as guides. A group of hospitals developed by Meridiam for the Turkish government incorporates all of these qualities, from focusing on environmental resilience by becoming the first public-private partnerships in Turkey to feature comprehensive ESG, SDG and climate monitoring reporting, to critical mass potential by developing a specific framework for executing on these types of healthcare sector PPPs. 

The story is much the same with the Saïss Water Conservation Project developed in Morocco and backed by the European Bank for Reconstructing and Development. To integrate social acceptability, a stakeholder engagement plan was developed that included an emphasis on supporting the creation of women-led businesses to improve female economic inclusion. Futureproofing was also a focus to ensure the long-term viability of the fragile water source, with technical cooperation grants mobilized to monitor the water level and control water extraction.

These are just a few of the examples of the many projects that provide sustainable infrastructure and establishing a clear definition of the characteristics of sustainable infrastructure is an important factor in financing its construction. 

With governments fiscally constrained by efforts to stabilise their Covid-ravaged economies, they will likely have to draw on multiple sources for financing to fund sustainable infrastructure development, including the private sector.  

ESG-focused investments have become ever more attractive and are projected to increase in value when the pandemic wanes. More concretely definitions help create an investable asset class that can draw in the financing needed.

The pandemic has laid bare a world in crisis. Environmental degradation and climate change continue to threaten lives and livelihoods around the world. Economic inequality within and between societies is becoming untenable. Long-running injustice and exclusion has forced a worldwide reckoning with how we treat one another. 

To address these deficiencies, economies and societies must be supported by high-quality, future-focused infrastructure. As all of our successes depend ever more on developing in an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable way, we must focus on how we can build the infrastructure to support the architecture of a better future for all.

Joseph Losavio is the World Economic Forum’s specialist on cities, infrastructure and urban services.

This article draws from the findings of the recent World Economic Forum report, Six Qualities of Sustainable Infrastructure In Action. Thanks also to Rashad Kaldany, chief investment officer at Blue like an Orange Capital and Anita George, executive vice-president, growth markets, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, for their co-writing duties on this article. They are also the co-chairs of the World Economic Forum’s advisory council on infrastructure development