Opinion article

A sustainable legacy for our post-COVID infrastructure spend

Arup Australasia Chair, Peter Chamley, writes that industry has an obligation to ensure infrastructure spending after COVID-19 is informed by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Since January, public sentiment about the nation’s top issues has swung from climate change action to healthcare, to the economy and then to job security and now back to healthcare as COVID-19 cases spike again in Melbourne. Will this cycling of ongoing crises be the new rhythm of life, our business as usual for the foreseeable future?

This ‘Focus. Refocus. Refocus again’ syndrome will inevitably wear us down. To cope with these times, we need some form of stabiliser, a framework for the future that will guide decision-making through the turbulence. We should remember that we already have this with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), which are simultaneously far-reaching, sensible and enduring.

We all hold out hope for a vaccine for COVID-19 but for climate change we need more than just hope: we need a willing coalition of the motivated and like-minded.
For those of us working in the built environment who care about where and how we live, the coalition of allies is growing, with planners joining the Declare Climate and Biodiversity Emergency Movement, alongside engineers, architects, landscape architects, the construction industry and others.

So now theoretically, every stage of an initiative – from concept, through design, to delivery, and operations and maintenance – could be looked at through a professional’s Sustainable Development Goals lens. 

We have opportunities right now: governments in our region are investing billions in infrastructure projects to stimulate their COVID-crushed economies. Surely there will never be a better opportunity to make a real difference beyond the short-term need for jobs and economic activity.

It is vitally important that the financial investment in these projects, be they large or small, nation-building or local and tactical, hit their immediate goals to keep businesses afloat and sustain and create jobs. But at the same time might we miss the chance to achieve more?

As someone who leads a firm in the thick of advisory, design and engineering in the built environment, I wonder, when the decision makers have moved on and the community is still paying down the debt, will our industry be proud of its handiwork?

Is there a risk that we will look back at monuments to a fiscal sugar hit? That accelerating didn’t substantially advance our quality of life or improve our environment?

Right now, we can consciously add value through the life cycle of concept development, design, construction, operation and maintenance. We can help make these major investments deliver projects that don’t just push us out of recession but also act as a springboard to a sustainable, resilient, low-carbon future.

We should challenge ourselves to deliver better-than-expected returns on what are very significant funding decisions made by governments on behalf of investors, the Australian public. Our declarations of good intent can become actions; we can use our influence to embed SDG and resilience value. 

Every one of the 17 SDGs relies on, or relates to, infrastructure in some way. They can, and should be, considered and factored appropriately in all major infrastructure strategies and decisions to optimise design impact and achieve a much broader set of positive outcomes.

We know the construction industry and our infrastructure assets are among the largest consumers of resources and biggest emitters of greenhouse gases both in construction and operation. These are consequences of the design choices we make. But if we were to challenge ourselves to question these decisions and to consider a wider range of outcomes, we could maximise sustainable outcomes.

We can consult with and show our clients how every new building can be zero carbon in operation and have significantly reduced embodied carbon. Or how the design of a highway intersection can have a marked impact on the operational carbon consumption of the vehicles that use it. Or better still, take advantage of regenerative design strategies. And in operation, how the right asset management strategies can improve efficiency and extend lives, rather than pushing for replacement.

Then when the project is complete, evaluate and measure the outcomes and impacts to inform the next. Adopting a whole-of-life carbon approach rather than simply looking at embodied energy or the proportion of recycled materials has to be part of our plan for a truly sustainable future.
The on-going crisis has brought ‘resilience’ into common use, as a catch-all, from infrastructure to mindsets. The quality to withstand or recover from shocks and stresses. Infrastructure Australia has a renewed focus on projects that build our capacity to be resilient but how can planners and designers go further and help create resilient communities? I commend the work of The Resilience Shift on the role of public policy, legislation and procurement approaches as well as the interconnectedness of infrastructure systems.

While facing the immediate threats and challenges and navigating the evolving economic environment, our industry still has a responsibility to walk its talk. The climate and biosecurity emergency are as real as ever and COVID-19 has not made it go away. There has been collective commitments to action and we have the UN SDGs as the sensible and practical guide to decision-making.
For all our years of experience, will enough of us working in the built environment now use our sway and speak up about the opportunities we see (beyond self-interest) to deliver the most profound benefits and generational value for money?

We must not waste the chance to create a sustainable and resilient future that our massive investment in infrastructure gives us right now. We cannot allow future generations to look back at this moment in time as a lost opportunity.

What society needs is enduring nourishment, not the sugar that we also may be tempted by right now.
About the authors

Peter Chamley

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Peter Chamley is the Chair of Arup’s Australasia Region and a member of Arup’s Group Board. Prior to his regional appointment, he was the firm’s global infrastructure leader. As Region Chair, Peter represents a team of more than 2500 employees located in 13 offices across Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. His focus is to build on and develop new collaborations and partnerships to address city leaders’ universal challenges of congestion, air and water quality, housing and employment creation. In particular, developing solutions to do more with less, to be sustainable and innovative while creating economic and social value – shaping a better world for future generations.

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