Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

We Need Better Infrastructure Decisions and Planning

By David Singleton

Leaders must think strategically about how to plan, fund and implement infrastructure projects.

The pace at which urban development is happening across the world in the 21st century is intense. Highly concentrated demographic growth in cities is one of greatest challenges our leaders face as they look to protect the future of their nations in the face of the global sustainability challenge.

What does it take to make cities better? There are few easy answers, but many of the possible pathways to better cities are intrinsically linked to the provision of infrastructure. Cities that make wise infrastructure investments have been successful at meeting future economic, environmental and social needs.

Improved understanding of the interactions between infrastructure provision, the needs and aspirations of the population served, and technology and sustainability both now and into the future is essential for our nation’s prosperity.

The combined population of Australia’s capital cities will grow by nearly 16 million by 2061, and the proportion of Australians living in a capital city will significantly increase – from 66% in 2011 to 69.3% in 2031 and 73.4% in 2061.

These “medium” projections suggest that the population of Melbourne will grow to 8.6 million by 2061, Sydney to 8.5 million, Perth to 5.5 million and Brisbane to 4.8 million. The implications of this population growth for urban infrastructure needs will be significant.

As a consequence, Australia faces several difficult decades and must come to grips with a backlog of infrastructure investment that has been – and will continue to be – exacerbated by population growth, increasing demand and the impacts of climate change.

Australia’s lack of transparency in infrastructure decision-making has often led to inefficiency and community distrust, and has constrained informed debate about the implied trade-offs: which projects, service outcomes, priorities, funding etc.

To get the greatest value from future infrastructure investments, leaders must think more strategically about how to plan, fund and implement these projects. This could include:

  • creating platforms to engage the public in discussions about investment decisions;
  • creating greater transparency around spending;
  • incorporating environmental and social issues into decision-making; and
  • partnering with the private sector to find new sources of funding and design ideas.

Robust infrastructure planning would allow industry to develop effective delivery plans and better workforce management, particularly in engineering.

Economic, social and environmental benefits, such as jobs growth and creation, reduced demand through efficiency, equity of public and economic assets, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions will accrue as a result of the development of sustainable long-term infrastructure.

Cooperation with communities and collaboration across sectors will result in speedier delivery of more successful high-quality infrastructure that accounts for the needs of all affected parties. Governments should develop a citizen jury approach for consulting with people, so that sound infrastructure decisions can be made.

When leaders take the time to learn from each other’s successes and failures, infrastructure challenges can be overcome. Achieving this will involve continuing to take advantage of the financial resources and innovation brought to the table by the private sector, as well as integrating community feedback into operations through ongoing engagement and stakeholder management.

Together, these strategies will help leaders to transition our nation for the future and will ensure that our cities can attract the investment and global talent that can enable their economies to grow.

David Singleton FTSE is a member of the Swinburne University of Technology Board, a Director of Standards Australia Ltd, a Board member of the Future Business Council, and Chairman of the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia. He chairs ATSE’s Infrastructure Forum.