By Sam Turner, Senior Associate – Sustainability and Environmental Management, and Ellie Callard, Senior Sustainability Advisor, at Beca.

What is motivating change in sustainable infrastructure development, and is there the capacity and necessary urgency to accelerate it?  

Infrastructure’s importance to society cannot be understated. It is essential to how our society runs, and to addressing the numerous local and global challenges we face. Not only do we rely on it to function as individuals and communities, we also use it to deliver a whole range of social, environmental, cultural and economic outcomes (aka sustainable outcomes). Many of these outcomes are achieved as much from infrastructure’s delivery, as from the benefits realised on its completion.

Whatever the future holds for things like climate change and technological advancement, we are never not going to need investment in infrastructure. With this criticality and certainty assured, could we as an industry better leverage the planning, development and use of infrastructure, to further accelerate the sustainability of our communities?

Is there an opportunity for the infrastructure industry to do more, collectively? To build on our shared progress and our synergies and position Aotearoa at the forefront of sustainable change and best practice? Could we be doing more to facilitate change from the way we approach problem definition, invest in, operate, design and construct infrastructure, and how it is used by the entire population?

In our view, the answers to these questions can be found by looking at the following four interlinked drivers for sustainable and climate responsive change:

  1. Legislation and policy
  2. Business risks and opportunities
  3. Social licence to operate
  4. Moral or ethical responsibility to act sustainably.

Considering these drivers, it is easy to see the current impact of regulation and government-driven change on all elements of our infrastructure network and industry. From the new Housing Supply Bill through to the Climate Change Response Act, and the Emissions Reduction plan, recent policies, regulations, and more, are a catalyst and motivator for change.

Intensifying cities brings new challenges and opportunities for infrastructure and we are seeing momentum build from national and local government infrastructure providers, with targeted years for improvement approaching quickly.

Similar impact is occurring in terms of business risk and opportunity – we need only look at recent national and global events to acknowledge how climate change is impacting businesses and infrastructure. It is not too far a stretch to suggest that organisations unmotivated to think about direct risks or opportunities arising from climate change, will not be in operation much longer. We also face business risks from failing to keep up with the regulatory and policy changes that are shaping infrastructure provider responses, or from lacking the social licence to do our work.

Social licence to operate and moral or ethical responsibility create growing impetus for change in the infrastructure industry. While perhaps still not as strong as they could be – in business it can be hard to elevate moral or ethical responsibility above economic drivers – this is changing. In some instances, it may be the strength of the first two drivers above that elevate the social or moral need for action.

For the infrastructure community, any combination of these motivators should be enough to drive change in how we operate, manage, design or construct our assets. If the strength of change led by the first two motivators is anything to go by, we are going to have to do it one way or another – so why wait?

As an industry, we must focus on addressing current and future societal challenges by realising we can do more, together. We must make a conscious choice to be motivated by the social, moral and ethical realisation that we can’t keep doing things as we have done before.

One possible way to facilitate faster change would be to create a ‘safe space’ for the infrastructure industry, that dismantles barriers created by commercial constraints, technical boundaries and ‘tradition’, and fosters innovation, partnership and collaboration. From this, the collective voice of industry may rise, as we work together to tackle the many challenges we face in shaping a more sustainable future.

Most importantly, it is hoped such a space will lay the foundations for an Aotearoa that meets the needs of today without compromising the needs of tomorrow.

After all, innovation and solving hard problems is what we are good at as an industry, isn’t it?