Sustainable Infrastructure vs Future-Proof Infrastructure. The evolution of sustainable infrastructure

Infrastructure projects are increasingly being procured as sustainable. So how exactly does this relate to the Future-Proof Infrastructure event and how is the FPI event the next step in sustainable infrastructure?

Sustainability in what sense?

Sustainability can be broad in its definition however the Environment Program of the United Nations (UNEP) defines sustainable infrastructure as ‘infrastructure systems that are planned, designed, constructed, operated and decommissioned in a manner that ensures economic and financial, social, environmental (including climate resilience), and institutional sustainability over the entire infrastructure life cycle. Sustainable infrastructure can include built infrastructure, natural infrastructure or hybrid infrastructure (which combines elements of both)’. Concepts and guidance to support the development of sustainable infrastructure evolved along with the efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. New infrastructure is constantly being constructed with the sustainable label, however such endeavours can often come with drawbacks. Infrastructure that aims to reduce waste, carbon or resource use are often accompanied by increased costs or higher initial capital outlay. Although these efforts should be commended and increased costs expected in the pursuit of sustainability, projects run the risk of derailing subsequent progress primarily due to two reasons: political and financial risks.

Political and Financial Viability

Particularly when it comes to a highly complex topic such as sustainability, it is often difficult to attribute monetary and non-monetary returns to stakeholders, reducing clarity for private investors who become reluctant to invest into risky infrastructure that do not properly disseminate the financial returns.

Infrastructure can be undertaken regardless of long-term impacts and requirements such as maintenance. A prime example of overzealous infrastructure investment regardless of the operational cost are the networks of roads countries constructed to foster automobile use which created an immense yearly maintenance bill governments are struggling to fund. Whilst this example isn’t exactly traditional sustainable infrastructure project, the world is not short of sustainable infrastructure projects that have fallen short of expectations. Sustainable projects can sometimes be one dimensional in its impacts and thus leaving it vulnerable to changes in political landscapes or alternative non-sustainable proposals that could be individually more effective or cheaper in comparison. If impacts are not considered broad enough to effect traction on sustainability projects, decision makers can become reluctant to continue with sustainable projects.

Conversely, traditional infrastructure and its long-term cost can also be often underestimated further disadvantaging sustainable projects with long term viability. Unfortunately, this undermines the financial competitiveness of sustainable projects when not all factors and even externalities are accounted for. The energy crisis of 2022 due to the war in Ukraine is an example of how taking advantage of cheap, yet vulnerable energy sources contributed to inflation across the globe. Had these risks been accounted for, sustainable infrastructure could have been seen as a more viable investment from the start.

Upgrading from Sustainable to Future-Proofed Infrastructure

So how is Future-Proof Infrastructure going to improve sustainable infrastructure and address its associated challenges? In short, to ensure financial and political viability, infrastructure projects must make their impacts dynamic, multi sector and clarify the financial structures as much as possible to abate public and private investor reluctance.

An increasingly prevalent example of infrastructure becoming dynamic is the nature-based solutions category of Green Infrastructure. Reintroducing natural processes and techniques to manage the environment reducing long term maintenance costs and providing a boost in biodiversity. Other public infrastructure projects are attaching themselves to private development, where development permits are only granted on the caveat that the private entity builds and maintains the public infrastructure. The more projects that can connect different benefits, the more politically resilient the project becomes in the eyes of decision makers. 

Designing Buildings Wiki recounts that Anthropologist Gregory Bateson documented an early demonstration on how people planned for the future as they built a future-proof building. The large dining hall of New College, Oxford, founded in 1379, was constructed using large oak beams. In 1859, the beams showed wear-off and required to be replaced – proving to be difficult and costly. It was discovered that replacement oaks had been planted in the college estates approximately a century prior to the college’s development and thus were used to replace the original beams of the hall. This is an early example of future proofing a building (the dining hall) against the risk of running out of the necessary resources.

Interestingly, not all infrastructure projects must be new builds or green field developments to achieve sustainability. InfraTech is constantly providing new solutions and techniques to public entities to better understand their existing infrastructure, its needs, maintenance, and possible efficiency improvements thus improving financial viability of existing infrastructure. Combined with improved financial instruments and sustainable infrastructure labels like FAST-Infra, infrastructure projects can benefit greatly from improved financial clarity to attract more investment. 

Sustainable infrastructure faces many challenges from ensuring effectiveness of new technology that could politically threaten project continuation, to financial clarity problems that private and public investors would hesitate to invest.  With these attributes combined, infrastructure can be Future-Proofed and lay strong foundations for an evolution of sustainable infrastructure to continue its global uptake and effectiveness.