How infrastructure can support global sustainability goals

Dr Elisabeth Culbard, Bechtel

Investment in infrastructure provides more than just new buildings and bridges, says Bechtel's Dr Elisabeth Culbard. It can change a country's future.

World leaders have been meeting in New York to discuss a set of sustainable development goals for Governments and civil society.  Among these goals: “build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable infrastructure and foster innovation.” 

Infrastructure can be about local jobs, a trained workforce, and enhanced supply chains, and it can lead to revitalised, connected communities and thriving economies

Bechtel would like to offer some propositions on how to achieve this essential goal, based on the practical lessons we have learned delivering major infrastructure projects in every part of the world.

 I preface these suggestions with the observation that infrastructure is not just about physical assets such as roads and bridges, but also about the social impact of delivering reliable energy, clean water, communications, logistics and mobility.  It can also be about so much more. 

Infrastructure can be about local jobs, a trained workforce, and enhanced supply chains, and it can lead to revitalised, connected communities and thriving economies.  It is also noteworthy that infrastructure challenges confront both developed and developing nations. 

Mature economies face the challenge of maintaining and modernising critical infrastructure to deliver basic human needs, including water, sanitation and electricity.  The following propositions apply to developing and developed countries alike.

To begin with, we believe that governance frameworks which involve governments, civil society and business can help to strike a balance between top-down and bottom-up decision making.  This is important because a collaborative approach can help governments to prioritise strategically, and avoid single-purpose projects. 

Every society faces multiple, often competing, demands and so a systematic approach to prioritising projects can be critical to achieving on-the-ground delivery.  Priority setting and delivering value can also be helped by placing a strong emphasis on planning.

Fiscal austerity and budget constraints exist among many governments, and alternative means of financing large-scale infrastructure projects will need to be considered for the UN goal to be achieved. 

Options include continuing support for multilateral financing institutions and export credit agencies, improving public-private partnerships, promoting project bonds and non-bank lending instruments, to name a few.  And while public sector institutions will continue to be important sources of funding, private investment, pension funds and sovereign wealth funds may supplement the market.

New technologies and data analytics can improve project quality and certainty of outcome, by helping to advance master planning, conceptual design and engineering, and construction. 

For example, designs for climate resilience can take into account projects for rainfall, tides, temperature, and population in order to prepare for changing needs, vulnerabilities and opportunities.

As proof of how a collaborative model can help national economies to achieve their sustainable development outcomes, I offer two examples from very different parts of the world.

In the UK, the economic impact of Crossrail will be in the region of $70 billion.  This project has adopted an integrated team approach, espousing collaborative principles.  Among its many development outcomes, Crossrail will help improve mobility in and around London by reducing crowding on the existing transport network. It is estimated to bring an extra 1.5 million people within a 45 minute commute of London.

In West Africa, Gabon is pursuing a promising new model for public-private partnerships. We helped to establish and we continue to support the national Agency of Major Works – the government’s executing agency for its $25 billion national infrastructure master plan.   This groundbreaking master plan will enable the country to modernise the national workforce, expand access to social development, and advance connectivity within the country, across Africa, and with the rest of the world. 

Clearly, infrastructure is about more than just the physical.

A copy of the submission to the UN by Bechtel and the US Business Council for International Business can be viewed here

Elisabeth Culbard is sustainability manager for Bechtel's civil infrastructure business.