Why best-case scenario planning fails resilient infrastructure

Global climate change and the current pandemic have led to a growing consensus on the need to pursue resilient infrastructure strategies that embrace strategic innovation and emerging smart technologies through public and private sector partnerships. This approach can avoid costly infrastructure failures that set back a country’s development agendas.

How climate change is affecting infrastructure

A case in point is the awakening that the US had last month when Texas, known as the “energy state”, experienced an extreme winter storm that caused 356 electric power generators to fail. This resulted in chaotic blackouts that impacted four million Texans, caused deaths and saw one city turning off its water supply. The aftermath caused further havoc when thaw induced flooding saw more homes and businesses flooded than during past mega-event hurricanes and consumers were hit with US$50 billion in power bills.

It can be argued that this unprecedented storm could not be planned for. Unfortunately, this argument is disingenuous. After a previously “unprecedented” storm ten years ago, scientists warned that the state’s electric-grid operators were ill-prepared for future storms and that climate change induced chaos to non-resilient infrastructure was imminent. Opportunities for adopting resilient initiatives were ignored. Facilities were not hardened. Maintenance was deferred. Warnings were not managed. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) even failed itself. Ironically, the day before the storm, ERCOT’s grid monitoring systems issued dire generating capacity warnings, but there was no mitigation back-up capacity.

Access to power is not the only US infrastructure concern. This month, the American Society of Civil Engineers released its 2021 Report Card for American Infrastructure. Near-failing grades for its deteriorating infrastructure were awarded for most infrastructure categories. Inaction from the federal government contributed to an overall grade of a C- being awarded. For example, it will take up to the year 2071 to fully replace failing bridges in the US. This poor state of infrastructure is costing the average US household thousands of dollars of lost disposable income annually. 

Planning and innovation are key  

We are not helpless, but are we willing to be innovative and proactive? Are we willing to harden our infrastructure and adopt resilience measures, which although costlier in the short-term, will provide long-term, cost-efficient and resilient infrastructure?

Innovative forward-looking strategies that can future proof infrastructure are critically needed. In the Middle East, which faces extreme climate change challenges, projects are increasingly focused on building infrastructure that embraces sustainable and resilient design. These include water desalination projects with new osmosis technology and sustainable cities such as Neom that are being built with specific inventive technologies. In South Africa, massive solar photovoltaic projects are being built in the Northern Cape that will decrease reliance on fossil fuels for power generation.   

Resilience planning requires holistic innovative and measured strategic steps to mitigate known risks and help fast-track recovery from adverse events. It should embrace proactive transformation through participatory and co-creative initiatives that result in interventions that can be repeated and which lean on new technology.

Opportunities exist for technological innovation to be shared and implemented in the infrastructure industry. For example, the Global Infrastructure Hub’s InfraChallenge is a global competition that offers participants the opportunity to bring their solutions to a global market and contribute to a brighter infrastructure future. This year, InfraChallenge is looking for technology-based solutions to building better, more resilient infrastructure and maintaining existing assets to enhance quality and resilience.

The United Nations Environment Program recently released its first 2021 report International Good Practice Principles for Sustainable Infrastructure. The report emphasises the necessity of addressing sustainability early in the planning process, and integrating all aspects of sustainability inclusive of governance frameworks and different infrastructure systems across time and space. Additionally, guiding principles that embrace efficient, resilient and cost-effective approaches were identified.

Adoption of new technology creates the platforms, tools, and knowledge to adopt infrastructure standards that drive resilience. It also provides new and evolving evidence-based best practices that can persuade decision-makers, developers and investors that their projects will be more resilient, thereby bolstering their goals of sustainable socioeconomic development.

Leveraging technology for a resilient future
Infrastructure strategies should voluntarily embrace resilient, innovative and regenerative technologies. Numerous examples of technological innovations include innovative water filter designs; heat resistant panels to protect highways from lava; assisting rural communities with water and broadband two-for-one; radar watching over aging levees and saving money with demand-response transit.

Other examples of innovation in infrastructure include a mini-hydro project in Oregon, US that uses a prototype of In-PRV that generates clean, carbon-free energy as it reduces excess pressure in drinking water pipelines; a 53-story tower dubbed Vertical Oasis that will be capable of changing the climate in its immediate proximity through a combination of geometry, vertical gardens, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and renewable energy harvesting; and the Basaksehir Pine and Sakura City Hospital located in seismic active Istanbul, which features more than 2,000 seismic isolators to protect it from earthquakes.

There are tremendous opportunities to use new technology to build resilient infrastructure in the US. President Biden’s $2 trillion US proposed Infrastructure Plan aspires to build US infrastructure back better. The plan calls for a new foundation for sustainable growth sensitive to climate change.

With all these proposed initiatives and emerging opportunities, it is time that both the public and private sectors act collaboratively as innovators of resilient infrastructure that addresses adverse climate scenarios for the betterment of all.

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