Building back better – What does a resilient future look like for infrastructure?

The urgent need for resilient infrastructure is widely acknowledged as pressure mounts on governments around the world to drive a post-pandemic recovery that embodies the promise of ‘building back better.’ Today, we look at what the pandemic has shown us about resilience in infrastructure and what resilient infrastructure might look like in the future.

A perfect storm

Infrastructure Australia’s Head of Policy, Jonathan Cartledge, knows how important resilient infrastructure is. Over the last 18 months, Australia has been threatened by bushfires, a wave of cyber-attacks and COVID-19. This perfect storm underlined the complex interconnection of the country’s critical infrastructure services and networks.

Cartledge says: “Communities adopted social distancing and moved to work from home. While these early measures successfully contained national case numbers, they prompted profound changes to the way people moved, consumed, and worked – which changed patterns of infrastructure use. People working from home had huge flow-on effects for waste management, energy use and broadband uptake. Australia has also seen a 200% increase in regional migration from the major cities, which has ripple effects on regional services and property prices.”

Although each country, region and city worldwide has its own unique story about infrastructure use during the pandemic, all these stories point to the need for more resilience.

What is resilience? More than the ability to absorb shocks

To date, Australia has managed the pandemic well by reconfiguring critical services and networks quickly. But Cartledge says the patterns seen as a result of COVID-19 contain important lessons about resilience.

Resilient infrastructure should be able to anticipate, resist, adapt and recover from shock and stress, he explains, adding that the definitions of resilient infrastructure and sustainable infrastructure are not the same.

“Resilience needs to be supported by technology to deliver sustainability. It is not just about being able to bounce back from a shock but using infrastructure to create thriving communities,” he says.

Cartledge’s words echo those of the Rockefeller Foundation in its definition of the resilience of cities as “the overall capacity of a city (individuals, institutions, businesses and systems) to survive, adapt and thrive no matter what kinds of chronic stresses or acute shocks they experience.”

The idea that resilience enables communities to thrive is one that feels fitting for the moment, as even despite the continued daily challenges of the pandemic, there is momentum for building better future infrastructure. The need to nurture resilient infrastructure, improve maintenance of existing assets and promote future digital and sustainable infrastructure became a key focus of the G20 Italian Presidency.

What does a resilient future look like for infrastructure?

Firstly, governments need to focus on transformative outcomes in creating and implementing stimulus packages that rely on infrastructure. As the GI Hub’s Chief Content Officer Henri Blas wrote in July 2020, “We should take steps now to not only rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic but also enable the more sustainable, inclusive and resilient infrastructure that is vital to our shared future.” Key enablers of transformative outcomes include:

  • Robust governance and regulatory frameworks
  • Crowding in private finance
  • Enhancing the efficiency of public spending
  • Leveraging technology and innovation in delivering and managing infrastructure.

Secondly, meeting the challenges and opportunities of the future requires government and industry to boldly embrace innovation across the infrastructure project lifecycle. Because the industry has not always been quick to develop or adopt innovative approaches, there is untapped potential in InfraTech (infrastructure technology).

A recent GI Hub analysis showed that most uses of InfraTech remain concentrated in a few technologies: sensors, the internet of things (IoT), analytics and artificial intelligence. The array of other, untapped technologies may very well represent opportunities to create resilience.

Lastly, as emphasised in the G20 Italian Presidency’s transformative infrastructure agenda, resilience must be a topic at all levels and in all stages of the infrastructure lifecycle. The G20 Italian Presidency notes the important role of local authorities, who it notes implement around 50% of infrastructure investments in G20 countries.

For more on resilient infrastructure, and to be notified when the GI Hub releases its InfraTracker, a tool tracking infrastructure stimulus packages and their transformative outcomes, sign up for our newsletter here.

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