* By Graham Watkins
On March 19, I was lucky enough to take part in a round table discussion amongst leaders in the field of sustainable infrastructure.
For those of you who were not able to attend the discussion here at the IDB, this blog post is an attempt to provide my perspective on these two hours of intense discussion about the implications of shifting our perspectives on how to design and build infrastructure in Latin America and the Caribbean, and how to turn infrastructure into a tool for social transformation.
The meeting was held in the context of the IDB’s Infrastructure Strategy – Sustainable Infrastructure for Competitiveness and Inclusive Growth – which sets out the Bank response to the challenge of substantive investment needs for infrastructure in LAC. At the heart of the strategy is a paradigm shift from seeing infrastructure only as an asset to viewing the purpose of infrastructure as providing services to improve quality of life and social inclusion. This shift in perspective places emphasis on the outcome of infrastructure projects being quality services as well as driving the need to determine if the proposed infrastructure is the best option for delivering those services. This new approach also emphasizes the need for early engagement of stakeholders to incorporate sustainability into infrastructure planning. In this context, the roundtable discussion ranged widely through many areas that can be broadly grouped into improving planning processes, establishing and implementing best practices, and ensuring full engagement of all stakeholders.
The panelist’s recommendations included the need for infrastructure planning to consider broader spatial and temporal scales; we need to break with the old static and isolated view of infrastructure, and to place infrastructure in the context of integrated land use planning, while overcoming the challenge that infrastructure sector planning and land use planning often occur under different jurisdictions. The panelists also strongly recommended that infrastructure sector planning must consider not only environmental and social issues but also the implications of, and for, land use, especially given that the focus for infrastructure is often to provide services for other land uses. A key additional message from the panel is that infrastructure planning needs to consider the delivery of services, and negative impacts, to stakeholders over longer periods of time. Finally, the panelists emphasized the additional and urgent need for infrastructure planning to take into account climate change adaptation and mitigation.
Five key recommendations for a more sustainable infrastructure
The panelists recommended a series of approaches to improving and ensuring the implementation of best practices in infrastructure planning, design, construction, and operation:
• Provide incentives and knowledge to support development and application of best practices.
• Improve environmental assessment, both in terms of rigor in analyses of alternatives to ensure that the infrastructure solution being proposed is the best option, and in enhancing the environmental and social management oversight mechanisms within regulatory agencies.
• Fully involve stakeholders in the decision making process for infrastructure development as a way to improve practices and planning.
• Ensure the availability of public information about projects, since a well-informed public is also crucial to drive the changes we need to see in planning and best practice approaches to infrastructure. By doing so, we can improve understanding of the specific actions that contribute to sustainability, ensure social justice, and improve transparency and accountability.
• Ensure that decision makers recognize the longer term economic (as opposed to financial), social, and cultural costs and benefits of infrastructure projects.
The good news is that over the past ten years social media has opened many new communication channels and, today, the public is more engaged and knowledgeable while at the same time there are increasing pressures on project proponents to ensure participation of stakeholders in project planning and development.
The roundtable discussion left me with a clear call for two related paradigm shifts. The first shift is to stop viewing infrastructure as an asset, but rather as a service where the measure of success is the quality of that service provided. The second, and clearly related, shift is not only to present improved planning, best practices, and stakeholder engagement as a basis for sustainable infrastructure, but also to present these arguments in financial and economic terms – so as to speak the same language as the Ministries of Finance, often the most important decision makers in countries.
A sobering note was raised toward the end of the discussion: changing the way we plan and develop infrastructure is needed urgently, but we may already be too late. On the other hand, there is growing awareness of the need for change, increasing involvement of key institutional players, rating and standards systems that describe visions for sustainable infrastructure, and even good examples of infrastructure initiatives that are designed to support sustainability; we need to empower institutions, keep driving for change, and finally inculcate these concepts into our cultures.
The discussion was led by Alexandre Rosa, Manager of the Infrastructure and Environment Division of the IDB, and Tomas Serebrisky, Principal Advisor of this same division. The panel included Ana Cristina Barros – the Director of Smart Infrastructure for The Nature Conservancy in Brazil; Adrian Fernandez, CEO of the Latin American Regional Climate Initiative in Mexico; Tina Hodges of the Federal Highway Administration in the USA who maintain the INVEST tool for sustainable infrastructure; Sergio Sanchez, Executive Director of the Clean Air Institute in Washington DC; and, Anthony Kane, Program Rating System Director of Zofnass in Harvard University which works on the ENVISION tool for sustainable infrastructure and supports the Infrastructure 360o Awards Program of the IDB.
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* By Graham Watkins:
Graham Watkins is a Lead Environmental Specialist within the Environmental Safeguards Unit of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). He has worked at the IDB since 2010, and focuses on developing and implementing safeguards to manage the impacts of large infrastructure projects on biodiversity and natural resources. Graham has worked in Latin America and the Caribbean for over 25 years; during this time he was the Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation in the Galapagos Islands and the Director General of the Iwokrama International Center for Rain Forest Conservation and Development in Guyana. Graham holds a PhD in Ecology and Evolution from the University of Pennsylvania and a Masters in Zoology from the University of Oxford, UK.