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The 2022 Infrastructure Market Capacity Report states that Australia’s 5-year infrastructure investment pipeline has grown by $15 billion in value compared to the previous 12 months. This is a record investment pipeline in the sector and there is a huge demand for skills and materials to meet these levels. The 2019 Australian Infrastructure audit published before the pandemic disruption, said that the future is uncertain and is one that brings both challenges and opportunities. The Infrastructure Market Capacity report identified a roadmap to a more productive and resilient future and focused on delivering outcomes via seven focus areas needed for a step change. We are more than halfway into 2023 and still no significant step change.
Outcomes for people and places – Infrastructure investment is driven by delivering economic, social and environmental outcomes to enable people and places to flourish and prosper.
Systems – Managing and planning infrastructure as a system drives more informed decision-making, leading to higher quality, faster, and cheaper infrastructure solutions that better align to the needs of people and places.
Digital – Digital transformation will drive productivity and innovation in infrastructure delivery.
Collaboration – Collaboration and integration across the ecosystem will drive a financially sustainable and high performing infrastructure industry.
Commercial – Commercial alignment and optimization drives industry financial sustainability and enables innovation.
Innovation – Delivery integration and innovative techniques enable increased productivity.
People – People wellbeing and resilience
Building UK claimed in July 2023 that the global trend in construction insolvencies is increasing. Despite stabilizing cost of materials, the cost of materials is still higher than three to four years ago. The most expensive driver today however is labor, and finding enough skilled engineers to build the pipeline remains a big challenge.
Romilly Madew, AO FTSE HonFIEAustis and CEO of Engineers Australia joined the VinZero Think Future Podcast recently to share her perspective on engineering the future and the challenges facing the industry. According to Romilly, ''the impact for the engineering community in Australia is multifaceted. The infrastructure pipeline alone is estimated to be worth $237 billion over the next 5 years so the impact covers across a few things. When you build these projects, you need the use of technology and materials. There are also supply and logistics constraints and therefore the project is going to go over time and over budget''.
''We don't have enough engineers to be involved in all those projects. More than 50,000 skilled engineers are estimated to be needed in that timeframe. There is an 80% vacancy rate in engineers nationally, so there is a big disconnect between the pipeline and the number of engineers available to build that pipeline''. -Romilly Madew, AO FTSE HonFIEAustis and CEO of Engineers Australia.
The impact of infrastructure development on the environment
The Infrastructure and Construction sectors have the biggest impact on the environment in terms of emissions, construction waste and the change of land use for roads and rail, putting huge pressure on the planetary boundaries. In the 2022 National Waste Report, construction and demolition contributed to 28 million Tonnes of waste per year.
Waste reuse and recycling are increasing, and the drive towards circularity is being accelerated for the construction industry, thanks to the work of the World Green Building Council and its recently released Circularity Playbook for the Built Environment. This is progress in the right direction, but is it enough, and what more can these sectors do to be more effective and efficient?
Even though 64% of Australians believe that climate change is the most significant threat we face, Australia’s response to climate change and environmental management is currently lagging behind to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 when compared with international progress.
Trends show that while Australians are early adopters of consumer technologies, they struggle to commercialize their own innovation and expertise.
Only 42% of Australians have trust in the government to lead us in the right direction. Siloed thinking and a lack of competent leadership are taking us on the road to nowhere. Many people in the sector are wondering what the road ahead might look like if we steered in a new policy direction.
The fork in the road
Major infrastructure projects in Australia have one thing in common, they are not designed with a vision to satisfy the needs of the 21st Century. We expect that the infrastructure built today will last for about 100 years, but it is likely that infrastructure we have invested in today could be obsolete within 20 years’ time because it may not meet the objectives of a sustainable society in the future. The current modus operandi is used to doing business as usual. The sector should read the warning signs, take a rest break and seriously consider what the future of sustainable infrastructure looks like.
Is now the time for the step change?
There is a lot of incremental change happening for sure, but it is still not the significant step change that we need. Government agencies such as EcologiQ are encouraging acceptance of more sustainable materials, but according to some, these changes are not having a big enough impact.
Frustration is high. Bureaucracy in large organizations and in particular with government agencies is typically very slow and it can take years to go through the approval process to make significant changes in time to allow new technologies to be exchanged for outdated materials in infrastructure. Trials on new materials are limited and expensive so there's a disincentive to do something new and innovative.
The Energy Minister Chris Bowen recently criticized Australia's current Net Zero 2050 plan calling it a 'fantasy' because ''it assumes future technologies will do the heavy lifting without any effort or investment to bring them about''. The Net Zero 2050 plan has not resulted in much action and needs a major overhaul. The revised plan will be fed by six key economic sectors: 1) electricity and energy, 2) industry, 3) the built environment, 4) agriculture and land, 5) transport, and 6) resources.
A step change in policy in the six economic sectors is necessary if we are to be successful.
New information on innovations must be woven into decision making and used collaboratively. What's more, knowledge needs to be shared in a way that is accessible to those who need it in a timely manner. Competitors need to find ways to work together, to share knowledge through lessons learned, and make these resources readily available in the spirit of collaboration.
‘’Why are we still using concrete for everything? Why haven't we started looking at other products and using those other products in a lot of circumstances?'' -Ross Brookshaw, Sustainability Manager, Infrastructure Sector.
The yellow brick road
The road ahead is a challenging one and Infrastructure needs to navigate towards net zero and achieve the SDGs in less than 82 months. There is an urgency for coordination towards significant step change in the design and governance of large infrastructure projects if we are to achieve our vision of success together.
A balance of performance-based targets, clear KPIs that allow back casting from a long-term vision of success is also important. KPIs must be flexible enough to adjust for new technologies on the road towards success. Specifications are important for obvious reasons, but innovation for better performance is important too. A revaluation of performance-based targets should be considered in Australia. In stark comparison, targets based on performance in commercial buildings are widely used in the UK. So why not here?
A shift in mindset
''Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expect different results''. -Einstein
If we are willing to change our mindset, share the knowledge and also share the risk of new technologies between all the stakeholders, it is possible to perhaps even take a quantum leap. People who are financially invested in the old ways of thinking and building infrastructure are being challenged to change. Change is uncomfortable but it's time to be courageous, focus on innovative solutions and choose the road less travelled.
Investment in new technologies is critical and therefore innovation should flexible enough to keep the sector moving forward. Leaders need to consider the trade-offs and make the approval process more forgiving so we can move faster even if that means taking risks. There is also value in learning by failing fast and risks can be calculated by scientific methods with high degrees of agility and confidence.
Is there a compass?
How will the sector navigate across so much complexity and get different results? Where is the compass and who knows how to use it?
One area Minister Bowen did not mention as part of the Net Zero 2050 plan overhaul is investment in education. Investment in education in sustainable development and design via a whole system thinking approach to decision making at all levels of the system is one of the keys. Making sure the right people are in the room early in the design phase is critical. Notice who is not in the room and make sure they have a voice.
Having enough educated and skilled engineers is the biggest challenge. Engineering universities in Australia need to rebrand engineering to attract leaders, of all genders, cultures, experience and ages into the engineering profession and welcome them as valuable multidisciplinary systems thinkers and designers.
Under Romilly Madew's leadership, Engineers Australia is focusing on rebranding engineering and aggressively promoting gender equality and diverse engineering roles for women. They are actively promoting the science subjects of STEM, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics for boys and girls as early as possible at school, as the interest in engineering needs to start there.
''There is just so many different areas of engineering and we know the younger generation want to make a difference. We know that that's what's really a burning platform for them''. -Romilly Madew, AO FTSE HonFIEAustis, CEO of Engineers Australia
When bright people are inspired, have the education and freedom to think they will naturally make different decisions that are strategically matched to the performance expectations suitable for the infrastructure of 21st century. Then we will know we have taken the right road and have the compass to guide us on an exciting journey. One we all want to be on together.
Authored by Johanne Gallagher, VinZero Sustainability Development Advisor ANZ.
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