Most people have heard the old Indian parable of how six blind men construe an elephant to be respectively a wall, spear, snake, tree, fan, and a rope because of their physical experience with the animal. A lesson of the parable is that people can easily interpret the same concept in different ways based on their own experiences. Interpretations can be so dissimilar as to lead to arguments as individuals advance their own partial interpretations over those of others. These differences in understanding make it difficult for people to work together; if everyone is “seeing” a concept in a different way – then it is hard to agree on how to proceed forward. This lesson is particularly relevant today. We are exposed to vast amounts of complex information, much of which is channeled through others. We work within siloed disciplines and are constantly reminded, when we interact with other disciplines, that “meaning” is a product of message and context.
Sustainability, for example, is often interpreted differently by economists, finance specialists, environmental specialists, social specialists, or institutional specialists – even more so by project developers, beneficiaries, civil society, or different ministries in governments. The Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement, and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda are global agreements that move us toward a more sustainable world. However, delivering on sustainability commitments can be very difficult if we do not agree on what we mean by sustainability.
We spent the last four years working with GIZ, the Harvard Zofnass School, the Brookings Institute, and IDB specialists to try to provide an answer to the question: “what is sustainable infrastructure?” We drafted an initial picture of the sustainability “elephant,” drawing from work on the multilateral development banks environmental and social safeguards, infrastructure sustainability assessments, and higher-level approaches to defining sustainable infrastructure. The broad result is that: “sustainable infrastructure is infrastructure projects that are planned, designed, constructed, operated, and decommissioned in a manner to ensure economic and financial, social, environmental (including climate resilience), and institutional sustainability over the entire life cycle of the project.” This definition is supported by four principles of economic-financial, environmental, social, and institutional sustainability; the principles are further described through 67 attributes described in What is Sustainable Infrastructure. Clearly, delivering on global sustainability commitments is a complex undertaking that requires an understanding of many different fields of expertise.
During the last four years, we also reviewed our projects and asked what the best ways are to ensure sustainability in infrastructure projects. Firstly, we recognized the importance of adhering to environmental and social sustainability standards when designing, constructing, and executing projects. But we also realized that, in many cases, decisions that are taken well before projects are designed – at the policy, legislative, and planning levels – determine if projects will be sustainable. A planning decision that situates a hydroelectric dam or a road in a protected area may have costly sustainability consequences if that project is designed and constructed. Enhancing sustainability in “upstream” institutional contexts is more durable than working on single projects and can lead to pipelines of more sustainable projects – potentially reducing the costs, effort, and time required to ensure sustainability project by project.
Infrastructure is the key to deliver economic growth and ensure that people receive adequate transport, logistical, energy, water, sanitation, health, and education services. However, delivering infrastructure is increasingly difficult because financing is challenged by fiscal constraints on national and sub-national governments and because projects are being built in more complex environmental and social contexts. Enhancing sustainability in upstream institutional contexts is increasingly critical for governments to reduce risks associated with infrastructure projects – these changes are key to deeper engagement with the private sector and therefore additional sources of financing. Ultimately incorporating sustainability upstream either in governments or companies also reduces downstream costs.
The focus of our ongoing work at the IDB is to see if we can achieve four objectives.
- We would like to work together with our partners to see if it might be possible for everyone to agree to a shared understanding of what sustainable infrastructure is. This shared understanding will help all of us work towards the same goal of delivering sustainable infrastructure.
- We would like to work together with partners to continue to strengthen the sustainability standards applied during project preparation, design, construction, and operations. The major challenges here are both establishing the standards and building institutional capacities to deliver the standards.
- We would like to work with leading think tanks and governments to help assess, design, and implement upstream institutional contexts to deliver pipelines of sustainable infrastructure projects. This is a highly complex area of work that has been the focus of attention of groups like the OECD – solutions may be country or even sub-national specific.
- Finally, we would like to work with other financiers of projects to help align financing sources with the delivery of sustainable infrastructure.
Perhaps, by agreeing to work in sync, we can bring different groups together to more effectively see and deliver the “sustainable infrastructure” elephant.