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Opinion article

The five trends shaping infrastructure after COVID-19

Ahead of the release of the 2021 Infrastructure Priority List, Infrastructure Australia CEO Romilly Madew AO discusses how COVID-19 has affected Australia’s infrastructure needs and highlights five trends shaping our infrastructure future.  
 

The COVID-19 pandemic defined 2020 and now, well into February of a new year, it is still a central part of our lives. While the impacts of COVID-19 on Australian communities will continue to evolve, it is already clear that how we use and deliver infrastructure services will never be the same.

COVID-19 has driven major shifts in the Australian economy and brought the role of infrastructure as an enabler into sharper relief. The pandemic has also shown that government and industry must be increasingly attuned to the risks of compounding crises and the complex and uncertain environment in which infrastructure must operate.

Lessons from COVID-19

Infrastructure Australia’s December 2020 report Infrastructure Beyond COVID 19: A national study on the impacts of the pandemic on Australia found that compared with other OECD countries, our infrastructure networks have proven to be resilient under pressure and open to innovation.

Developed in collaboration with L.E.K. Consulting, our report presents a moment-in-time snapshot of how the pandemic has changed the way we use infrastructure, and considers which of these changes could have lasting impacts on how we plan, fund and deliver the services we all rely on. It finds that while COVID-19 has paused the traditional driver of infrastructure, net overseas migration, the pace of change in the sector has generally increased and new trends have emerged. 

Some infrastructure sectors were more affected than others, but the importance of the health response was not limited to infrastructure sectors with direct customer contact, such as transport and social infrastructure. In many areas, COVID-19 has accelerated existing and emerging trends, such as flexible working models. However, it has reversed others – for instance, people have moved away from public transport and into the car. 

It has also created new experiences, such as new digital cultural and arts offerings.

Our report found five key trends that we are continuing to watch closely:


Digitisation

  • The pandemic drove 100 per cent growth in monthly online retail, five times the annual growth recorded in 2019, resulting in a rise in parcel delivery and micro-freight.
  • Nine in 10 Australian firms adopted online collaboration tools, and infrastructure services from cultural institutions moved their services online.

 

Decentralisation

  • Some regions are seeing a local boom of regional tourism and population growth, with a 200 per cent increase in net migration from capital cities to regional areas.
  • There was a move from large, centralised infrastructure to decentralised systems, such as rooftop solar.

 

Localism

  • As social interaction became more local, so did the use of public spaces, other social infrastructure and transport networks.
  • There’s been a 23 per cent increase in our use of national parks and green spaces nationally. Research also shows that 87 per cent of Australians have noticed a positive shift in community attitudes towards urban green space, particularly amongst those living in high density areas.

 

Service innovation

  • Use of telehealth increased from 0.04 per cent to 35 per cent of all Medicare schedule services, while operators increased cleaning on public transport and shared real-time passenger data.
  • Teaching curricula largely moved online, especially in higher education.

 

Adaptability

  • Operators adjusted quickly, and where possible, changed service patterns and capacity to respond to the shift of demand from the CBD to the suburbs.
  • Broadband capacity increased by 40 per cent, with the NBN releasing latent capacity to service providers.
  • The health sector’s response included a nearly three-fold increase in Intensive Care Unit capability.

 

Guiding the infrastructure-led recovery

We are all fortunate that to date, Australia’s governments and infrastructure providers have successfully navigated dramatic changes to community behaviour and network requirements, and rapidly adjusted their service provision across the transport, telecommunications, digital, energy, water, waste and social sectors.  

However, as the pandemic continues to put our infrastructure to the test, we must remain focused on delivering infrastructure that is flexible, resilient and highly attuned to community needs.  

On February 26, Infrastructure Australia will be launching the 2021 Infrastructure Priority List. Responding to the many challenges that have emerged over the past year, the Priority List highlights the near-, medium- and long-term investment opportunities for our cities, regions and remote communities.  

As the economy and the community continue to absorb and respond to the shocks brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, realising the opportunities for infrastructure to deliver both economic and quality-of-life benefits will be increasingly important. At Infrastructure Australia, we’re focused on creating an evidence base that does exactly that – ensuring our infrastructure services respond to our changing and diverse community needs. 

About the authors
RM

Romilly Madew

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Romilly Madew commenced as Chief Executive of Infrastructure Australia in April 2019. Recently awarded an Order of Australia in acknowledgment of her contribution to Australia’s sustainable building movement, Romilly is recognised around the world as a leader and advocate for change in the property and construction sector.  
She led the Green Building Council of Australia for 13 years, representing over 650 companies with a collective annual turnover of $40 billion, and presiding over the Green Star rating system which has seen more than 2,250 projects certified across the country. Romilly holds Board positions with Sydney Olympic Park Authority and Chief Executive Women, and has sat on numerous ministerial panels including the Cities Reference Group, National Urban Policy Forum and the China/Australia Services Sector Forum. 

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