Balancing short-term need with long-term prosperity: six ways to make infrastructure investment count

By Jarendra Reddy | November 12, 2020

One of the biggest challenges that governments around the world face is balancing short-term need with long-term prosperity. Short-term pressures drive decision-making along a path that often provides symptomatic relief. While this relief is needed, it’s important to ensure it doesn’t come at the expense of achieving long-term goals. A way to balance short-term need with long-term prosperity is to use infrastructure more thoughtfully, especially when leveraging it as economic stimulus. Within this context, here are six ways to make investment in infrastructure count not just for today, but for decades to come.

Durability through a diverse range of infrastructure investment

Often there is a tendency to prioritize acquiring entirely new infrastructure assets. New assets signal–in a very visible way–progress. It’s important to reframe the definition of progress. While new assets may very well be a need, infrastructure projects can be and need to be diverse. Some projects can create short-term stimulus, while others can enable longer term success. Within this context, projects spanning the following categories must be considered to ensure more durable assets and sustainable cities:

  • new capital and acquiring entirely new assets
  • expanding the capacity of existing assets
  • sustaining capital, maintenance, and asset management
  • operations performance improvement: extracting more output from existing assets or achieve the same outputs at a reduced operating cost (e.g., bi-directional lanes to enable the use of contra-peak roadway capacity).

Maximize impact through integration

Generating impact at scale is important. Projects planned and executed in isolation can have diluted impact. Close collaboration with land developers and organs of state are important to ensure that infrastructure capacity provision enables and paces new development clusters, matching growing demand appropriately. Creating high-performance urban development requires thoughtful integration in every way possible. For example, social infrastructure like hospitals and schools should be planned in collaboration with transit agencies to ensure these facilities are more accessible to the communities they are intended to serve.

Create focus by making better choices

Resources around the globe are finite. Even if capital is plentiful, it should be treated as scarce. It’s important to focus on doing the things that really matter and doing them well. This starts with making better choices. This involves evaluating projects through impact for the level of investment. But the definition of impact and investment can mean many different things to different stakeholders. It’s therefore important to ensure both are configured according to strategic objectives and calibrated with stakeholder preferences. Projects that have a high impact with low investment should be pursued, whereas projects with a low impact and high investment should be avoided.

Impact can be defined using the following criteria and potentially a combination of both quantitative and qualitative measures: immediacy of impact, financial viability, job creation, maximum local sourcing and spending, effect on climate change and environmental sustainability, and the capacity that meets forecast demand.
Investment can be defined using a set of generalized criteria that may include inter-alia, monetary measures, demand for organizational capacity, and time. Organizational capacity shouldn’t be consumed with low-impact projects.

Enhance the value proposition of what’s implemented

Once priority projects are selected, it’s important for each project to be reviewed through a lens that seeks to optimize the level of investment, while still achieving the project’s intended outcomes. There are many ways to enhance value proposition. It takes creativity, collaboration with stakeholders, and clear goals. For example, when replacing aging infrastructure prone to failure like water supply networks, it’s sensible to think about the replacement in relation to supporting urban redevelopment and growth instead of just asset management.

Be efficient in implementation

Efficient implementation is a cornerstone to minimizing depletion of resources and bringing about immediacy of impact. For example, current lead times for procurement need to be dramatically reduced to bring projects to market faster. Alternate delivery models need to be considered to shorten implementation time frames through reducing the number of procurement events. This also encourages innovation. In addition, regulatory approval processes, while essential, tend to slow down implementation. Remedies need to be sought to ensure that approval processes are expedited without compromising sound decision-making.

Continuous improvement through digital technologies

Every infrastructure project should consider the potential that can be unleashed through making digital technologies ubiquitous across the life cycle of an asset. From design to construction and eventually asset management and operational performance improvements, digital technologies are helping shape more efficient designs, giving owners deep insights on how to enhance efficiency during operations and information on the next expansion or extension.

In the wake of the recent health crisis created by COVID-19, economic recovery will be top of mind. Investment in infrastructure has often been the go-to solution as an economic stimulus. However, within the context of the clear and present threat of climate change, ubiquity of digital technologies, economic volatility, and finite resources, thoughtfulness is needed now more than ever. How can we ensure the investment made today will have a lasting positive impact for generations to come?