COVID-19 has exposed deep inequalities in our society across regional, community, ethnic and gender lines. As we act to limit the economic impacts of the pandemic and start on the road to recovery, it is essential that we think and invest in a joined-up and coherent way: the decisions we make now will have social, economic and environmental consequences reaching far into the future, says Cathy Travers.
While the chancellor’s summer statement didn’t address infrastructure, the National Infrastructure and Construction Procurement Pipeline, published in June, earmarked £32bn of investment to the end of 2021. That is enough to begin making a difference, but this investment and all that follows should be considered in the context of its social multiplier, not just the fiscal multiplier. We should be thinking about long-term outcomes for society – in terms of health not hospitals, education not schools, better skills and wellbeing as the objectives for digital connectivity, and access to health, education and jobs as goals for transport.
Better outcomes for people and society
We must maximise the value from infrastructure investment, focusing on the greatest benefit to society for each pound of expenditure.
Government and private companies have been talking about ‘inclusive growth’ and ‘levelling-up’. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development defines inclusive growth as that which “creates opportunity for all segments of the population and distributes the dividends of increased prosperity, both in monetary and non-monetary terms, fairly across society.” The agenda aligns with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals principle of leaving no one behind.
In delivering the current tranche of infrastructure projects and planning the next, it is important that government and private sector clients maintain that focus. The government’s ‘build, build, build’ slogan encourages the acceleration of ‘shovel-ready’ projects. But clients should double check that projects are also shovel-worthy, delivering social and economic value beyond the immediate benefit of stimulating construction-related economic activity. With budgets being drawn tighter, it is important that the projects we undertake today will deliver a lasting return on investment for the regions and communities that need it most.
It is clear that, like COVID-19, the effects of climate change have the greatest impact on the poorest and most disadvantaged sections of society. In 2019 the UK government showed international leadership on climate change by being the first to legally commit to reducing national greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero. Other governments have followed suit. Through global action on greenhouse gas emissions, severe climate change can be avoided, and harm to vulnerable communities limited.
The net-zero agenda presents a very substantial challenge for all sectors of the economy, but also an amazing opportunity for job creation, contributing to the social rebalancing that is so needed. Massive upscaling of wind, solar and nuclear power generation is required, along with the development of hydrogen production, storage and transmission infrastructure (which in turn requires carbon capture and storage). Power stations, industrial processes and commercial and domestic heating systems will need to be decarbonised, transportation must be comprehensively electrified, and energy efficiency has to be improved. Much of this effort needs to be centred on traditional industrial hubs, which are currently suffering from some of the country’s highest levels of social and economic deprivation.
Decarbonising the economy requires significant new construction, which itself must be delivered and operated so as to contribute to the net-zero goal. For asset owners, operational and capital carbon reductions are a means of achieving commercial efficiencies and cost savings – to date, the infrastructure industry’s carbon leaders have achieved 60% carbon reductions, delivering 30% capital cost savings across multi-project, multi-year programmes.
Physical adaptation and resilience
Not only must new infrastructure delivered with the government’s ‘build, build, build’ blessing be compatible with a net-zero future, but it needs to be adaptable and resilient to the physical impacts of climate change: even if emissions ceased now, global warming will continue due to the locked-in effects of historic emissions. Infrastructure and the communities it serves need to be protected. Where damage is unavoidable, systems for early warning and rapid recovery are required.
Close attention must be paid to social imbalance when addressing resilience. Climate-related impacts have been at the root of social discontent and conflict across North Africa and South Asia in the last decade. Climate resilience needs to be conceived of as ‘societal resilience’ – ensuring that socially disadvantaged individuals, families and communities are included and thereby enabled to access opportunities, participate in and contribute to society.
COVID-19 has highlighted a gaping social disparity. Those who are connected to broadband and equipped with devices at home have been able to work, train and access services online. Those without connection and devices have not. Enabling the most disadvantaged to get online is essential to the levelling-up agenda.
Perhaps accelerated by COVID-19, digital technologies are changing work, travel, retail and leisure possibilities, expectations and patterns. Infrastructure systems and services are having to adapt, and the planning, delivery and operation of infrastructure must become more flexible to cope with uncertain future requirements. At the same time, digitalisation is giving users unprecedented choice and control over how they access and ‘buy’ infrastructure services, raising expectations of the quality of service they receive.
New projects need to be ‘digital by default’. In the delivery and management of assets, the ability to create and harvest data, analyse, model and share it, offers the potential to improve efficiency, outcomes and value over the whole of the asset lifecycle.
Digitalisation offers unprecedented potential to do more for less by enabling problems to be understood and solved better, to target investment and resources where they’ll do most good, to anticipate risks and manage them, and to respond swiftly to incidents. Achieving all this requires transformative change, with new assets configured to be smart from the start, and existing infrastructure being digitally retrofitted to provide data that can be used to inform better decisions, leading to better outcomes for clients and their customers – society.
Digitalisation is also capable of delivering substantial efficiencies in project delivery – cost and time savings through streamlined scheduling, collaboration and information sharing, clash avoidance, rehearsal of construction procedures, reduced waste and product-based delivery, for example.
COVID-19 has shone a light on some deep and difficult societal challenges. The infrastructure industry has a pivotal role in solving them. Choosing the right projects and delivering them in the right way is important to all our futures.