In distinguishing between “good” and “bad” debt, federal Treasurer Scott Morrison equates good debt with infrastructure investment. However, not all infrastructure investment announced in the budget is necessarily “good”.
We are now in the Anthropocene – a new geological age defined by the global scale of humanity’s impact on the Earth – which places new requirements on our infrastructures. We need to move beyond the AAA ratings mindset, and instead aim for net-positive outcomes in social, economic and ecological terms from the outset.
Infrastructure (such as transport, water, energy, communications) underpins our ability to live in cities and our quality of life. And most infrastructure is very, very long-lived. Therefore, our infrastructure investment decisions matter enormously, especially for tomorrow.
More than half of the world’s people live in cities, and have just one planet’s worth of material resources to share around. This means we must define a new set of expectations and performance criteria for infrastructure.
Rather than settling for doing less bad, such as less environmental destruction or social disruption, we must aim from the outset to do more good. This net-positive approach requires us to restore, regenerate and increase social, cultural, natural and economic capital.
Examples of this kind of thinking are, as yet, rare or small.
Bishan Park on the Kallang River in Singapore gets close. Formerly a channelled stormwater drain, this collaboration between the national parks and public utility agencies has recreated significant habitat while providing flood protection and an exceptional recreational space. All this has been done in an extremely dense city.
Looking further into the future, in transport, a net-positive motorway might prioritise active transport and make public transport central by design. It might send price signals based on the number of passengers, vehicle type (such as autonomous) and vehicle ownership (shared, for instance).
Net-positive thinking aligns with a groundbreaking speech by Geoff Summerhayes, executive board member of Australia’s Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA), earlier this year. He identified climate change risk as a core fiduciary concern, and therefore central to directors’ duties.
This shift raises significant questions for the financial and operational validity of major infrastructure projects.
For example, in assessing the WestConnex motorway project, Infrastructure Australia queried why a broader set of (potentially less energy-intensive) transport options was not considered. Similar questions arise for the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund’s support for Adani’s giant Carmichael coal mine and associated water and transport infrastructure.
A core part of the switch to net-positive infrastructure is the realisation that resilience and robustness are different things. Historically, robustness has been central to infrastructure planning. However, robustness relies on assuming that the future is more or less predictable. In the Anthropocene, that assumption no longer holds.
So, the best we can do is set ourselves up for a resilient future. This is one where our infrastructure is at its core flexible and adaptable.
This could include, for example, phasing infrastructure investment and development over time. Current analysis is biased toward building big projects because we assume our projected demand is correct. Therefore, we expect to reduce the overall cost by building the big project now.
However, in a more uncertain future, investing incrementally reduces risk and builds resilience, while spreading the cost and impact over time. This approach allows us to monitor and amend our planning as appropriate. It has been shown to save water utilities in Melbourne as much as A$2 billion.
Maybe the fact that we can be criticised for not having enough capacity ready in time has influenced our decision-making. We should really be challenged over investing too much, too soon, thereby eliminating the opportunity to adapt our thinking.
Or maybe we are so concerned about the need to build certainty into our planning that we are missing the opportunity to build learning through feedback loops into our strategies.
Surely there is a balance to be struck between providing enough certainty for investment without pretending we know with absolute certainty what we need to invest for the next 30 years.
We need long-term plans alongside learning and adaptation to respond to the imminent challenges facing infrastructure everywhere. These include:
major unregulated growth in interdependencies between infrastructures;
lack of systems thinking in planning and design;
radical shifts in the structure of cities and how we live and work;
increasingly fragmented provision;
no central governance of infrastructure as a system; and
much existing infrastructure approaching or past its end of life.
Regulatory reform is part of what’s required to enable public and private investment in better outcomes. Here too we need to learn our way forward.
Sydney’s emerging, world-leading market in recycled water is an example of a successful niche development that delivers more liveable and productive pockets in our cities through innovative integrated infrastructure.
Ultimately, doing infrastructure differently will also require investment in research on infrastructure. The UK is investing £280 million in this through the Collaboratium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities. But in Australia’s recent draft roadmap for major research investment, infrastructure is largely absent. We overlook infrastructure research at our peril.
Cynthia Mitchell, Professor of Sustainability, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; David Singleton, Chair, Smart Cities Research Institute, Swinburne University of Technology, and Jim Bentley, Honorary Director, Centre for Infrastructure Research, University of Auckland
This is the fourth article in our series Making Cities Work. It considers the problems of providing critical infrastructure and how we might produce the innovations and reforms needed to meet 21st-century needs and challenges.
The privatisation of urban infrastructure in Australia is an ironic story. The vehicles of urban infrastructure – the utilities and the state-owned enterprises – were so central to the life of cities that they became perfect entities for private sell-off. We now live with the consequences of the sell-off.
The utilities flourished in Australia as a nation-building exercise following the second world war. The Bretton Woods agreements entrenched Keynesian fiscal behaviours across the Western world.
The utilities thrived on the willingness of governments to raise capital for public works. They were also central to the development of state capacity and the assembly of a career-based professional public service. As part of the social compact, the public accepted reasonable user pricing for the availability of water, energy, public transport and telecommunications services.
Hence, the utilities and the state-owned enterprises led the roll-out of urban infrastructure in the second half of the 20th century. This roll-out shaped the nature of Australian urban life, its format and flows.
But then fiscal crisis of the state descended in the 1970s and 1980s. The sell-off of public assets was seen worldwide as a solution to state indebtedness. Arguments that private enterprise could deliver infrastructure services more efficiently added impetus.
Few governments resisted the sell-off urge. Australian governments, state and federal, participated in the sell-off, though in a stuttering manner. Through time, however, the change has been substantial.
Abbott and Cohen calculate that the output of state-owned enterprises in Australia in 1989-90 accounted for 7% of GDP, 9% of total employment, and 14% of gross fixed capital expenditure.
By 2011-12, the output of state-owned enterprises had fallen to 1.3% of GDP. Their gross fixed capital expenditure contributed only 1.8% of the nation’s total. The authors estimate that proceeds from privatisations in Australia since 1987 total around A$194 billion (in constant year 2000 dollars).
The sell-off commercialised and privatised a raft of assets: electricity generation and transmission, gas distribution, airports, ports and telecommunication. New assets went straight to private hands: motorways, public transport, renewable energy generation, and freight handling.
The shedding of public responsibility for infrastructure meant public investment in Australia as a share of GDP fell from more than 5% in the mid-1980s to well below 3% by the end of the 1990s.
There is much to understand about the sell-off. Here I focus only on why private investors are willing to pay extraordinary prices to acquire urban infrastructure assets.
The attraction of investing in an urban infrastructure asset comes from the infrastructure services being embedded in the daily flows of people, water, energy and information throughout a city. The flows of a city are remarkably ordered in terms of volume, direction and timing.
How a city operates is dependent on the co-existence of decisions by infrastructure operators and users. The operators decide how and when services will be available. Households and firms decide what they will be doing across a 24-hour day and therefore how and when they will use the infrastructure services on offer.
Thus, the efficiency of infrastructure provision comes from the predictability of the flows of a city. These in turn come from a historical patterning and sequencing of behaviours by householders and firms as they read off and conform to each other’s movements.
An example is the relatively sympathetic structuring and sequencing of work hours and school hours. This ensures that public transport facilities are utilised more efficiently in peak hours, while the hours that parents and children spend together are made more convenient.
The embeddedness of infrastructure into city life means that revenue streams from user fees for infrastructure services are highly predictable and stable. And because transport, water and energy supply is usually monopolised, the householder has little choice but to continue as a consumer of an infrastructure service.
The books of a utility or state-owned enterprise, then, represent a discrete set of households well trained to pay their monthly bills. This is precisely the type of revenue stream that pension, insurance and sovereign wealth funds seek when faced with the peculiar problem of having surplus cash to lock away for at least the next two decades.
Perhaps it was clever to have solved a government debt problem in Australia back in the day through a sell-off of assets to a new class of long-term investor. But as a consequence we have lost other things.
Infrastructure as a planning tool to shape our cities is one. Revenue streams to subsidise needy customers or supply to remote locations is another.
And, critically, we have lost the opportunity for the state to revamp energy, water and transport systems to allow for innovative supply and demand formats – such as distributed electricity supply networks – that are more appropriate to a climate-threatened planet.
Long-term privatisation contracts, most of them closed to scrutiny, lock urban infrastructure provision into 20th-century formats.
The difficult task now will be their unlocking.
This article draws on a research paper by the author in a new special issue of the international journal, Urban Policy and Research, on critical urban infrastructure. You can read other published articles in our series here.