Three seemingly unrelated events bought thousands of people to a rainy Washington D.C. at the end of April 2017. The Global Infrastructure Forum (GIF) featured the UN and the multilateral development banks and their commitments to infrastructure to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement. The Science March paralleled marches all around the world to draw attention to the role of science in decision making. The Smithsonian Earth Optimism Summit focused on the good news stories in looking after the world we live in rather than the doom and gloom that normally faces people every morning. What happens when you put all three of these events together and use them to answer the question – “what is sustainable development?”
The Brundtland Commission said that sustainable development was “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Additional descriptions of sustainable development enumerate social, environmental, economic, and institutional criteria and proscribe standards within these criteria. The criteria and standards can help measure how sustainable a system is, and help how to increase sustainability. But, generally, definitions and descriptions of sustainability do not tell you how to achieve sustainable development – they tell you where your gaps and weaknesses are. Ultimately, achieving sustainability is a change management problem – we need to shift from being unsustainable to being sustainable and that any “definition” of sustainable development needs to also describe how to achieve this change.
If we want to change highly complex human institutions – then we should apply lessons from the many years of analysis of change in human organizations. John Kotter has argued that change can be viewed as an eight-step process.
- Create a Sense of Urgency: to help people understand why they need to change.
- Build a Guiding Coalition: get people to work together.
- Form a Strategic Vision & Initiatives: work towards the same shared vision – this is what will keep us together on the same path, accompanied with defined ideas as to how to make the vision actionable.
- Enlist a Volunteer Army: we need to engage others to help achieve the vision, to bring others in under the umbrella.
- Enable Action by Removing Barriers: We need to work with them to identify and begin to break down barriers to success.
- Generate Short-Term Wins: While all of this is happening, it is critical to keep communicating the vision, the successes and to continue supporting those already working together
- Sustain Acceleration: bring more people to join the vision and so accelerate the movement in the required direction.
- Institute Change: And then, finally, the changes that have been made need to be institutionalized – set into policies, laws, regulations, and organizational practices.
The Global Infrastructure Forum looked at how to meet the challenge of building US$2-3T worth of low carbon and climate resilient infrastructure every year over the next 15 years. In Paris and New York in 2015, we finally recognized that we have an urgent need to change but despite recognizing that infrastructure is crucial to economic growth and delivering critical services, 1) most present and planned future infrastructure is neither low carbon nor climate resilient; 2) most country governments and their policies are not prepared to deliver infrastructure let alone low carbon and climate resilient infrastructure; 3) while the funds may be available globally through private sources – e.g., institutional investors – the public sector does not have the financial capacity to deliver this agenda nor the ability to attract these investors; 4) investors are interested in improved environmental, social, and governance practices but lack a formal approach to investing in sustainable infrastructure; and, 5) there are substantial stakeholder concerns about, and resistance to, new infrastructure because of the ways in which previous infrastructure projects have been prepared and executed without managing externalities.
The Science March underlined that science plays a critical role in in providing information that can be used in decision making – this role is particularly relevant as we enter the uncharted waters of trying to understand future climate scenarios. The Earth Optimism Summit correctly pointed out that we need to focus on success stories – on the positive – to be able to move forward towards a world we want to see.
So, with all of this in mind, “sustainable infrastructure” is infrastructure that is socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable.
It is infrastructure that is delivered through good governance – in a secure institutional context that guarantees that we have made our infrastructure choices by fully engaging key stakeholders, integrating other sectors, and using the most up to date technologies and information.
It is infrastructure that is designed and prepared in a way that considers all aspects of sustainability and demonstrably meets international best practices for environmental and social safeguard standards throughout construction and operations.
It is also infrastructure that is financially and economically sustainable – where investors benefit from better managed risks, increased cost efficiencies, stakeholder buy in to projects and social license, and, greater assurance of resilience against climate extremes.
To achieve this vision of “sustainable infrastructure,” we need to bring together those at the Global Infrastructure Forum, those that were marching for Science, and those at the Earth Optimism Summit along with many others. We all need to work in a coordinated way toward a shared vision of sustainable infrastructure. We need to show the way forward by developing and implementing models of sustainable infrastructure project portfolios and projects and communicating successful positive examples that demonstrate the benefits of this new approach over business as usual.
Ultimately, we will need to institutionalize the organizations, policies, laws, and regulations that incentivize planning and sustainability in infrastructure. Along the way, we will need to overcome crucial barriers that block progress like price distortions, inappropriate accounting for externalities, incentives for urban sprawl, and other cognitive biases that move us toward unsustainable projects. Because we are transforming economic systems, we also need to make sure that we include safeguards that protect people that depend on business as usual as well as those that might be affected by future infrastructure.
If you liked this post, please read “The Imperative of Sustainable Infrastructure in Latin America”
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