Keeping sustainability front of mind

Romilly Madew, Chief Executive Officer of Infrastructure Australia, speaking at ISCA Connect 2021 conference.
Romilly Madew, Chief Executive Officer of Infrastructure Australia, speaking at ISCA Connect 2021 conference.

Romilly Madew, Chief Executive Officer of Infrastructure Australia, spoke about the importance of resilience and the role of an infrastructure-led recovery at the Infrastructure Council Australia Conference earlier this year. Roads & Infrastructure reports.

The need for systematic change in infrastructure planning to tackle the impacts of external uncertainties was a key message delivered by Romilly Madew, Chief Executive Officer of Infrastructure Australia, at the Infrastructure Sustainability Council’s 2021 conference in May this year.

“In recent years, the resilience of our infrastructure assets has been tested on many fronts,” she said.

“Australians have experienced unprecedented extreme events which have emphasised the importance of our ability to handle shocks and stresses.”

Recalling how the devastating bushfires of late 2019 damaged energy grids and disrupted communications between communities, followed by the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic leading to increased cyber security threats and telecommunication challenges, she noted that the frequency and severity of such shocks and stresses is likely increase in the future.

“To give you a sense of what we are preparing for by 2050, the annual economic cost of natural disasters in Australia is expected to more than double from an average of $18 billion per year to more than $39 billion per year,” she said

But, as she pointed out, embedding new practices to develop infrastructures that can withstand such uncertainties while remaining cost-effective is easier said than done.

“The sector requires transformation and systematic change at all levels of government, all sectors and across all communities,” she said.

Starting at planning phase

But what does resilience mean in the context of infrastructure planning? Ms Madew elaborated on that.

“We have been working closely with Infrastructure NSW on a series of advisory papers to support better resilience planning. Through this project, we have found that while traditional risk planning focuses on avoiding threats, resilience embraces these threats and acknowledges they’re unavoidable, shifting the focus to absorbing, managing and recovering from disruption,” she said.

“To support this, a systematic approach to understand and quantify risk is necessary to ensure our assets, networks, systems, communities and places are resilient.”

And the best place to start for achieving sustainability, she noted, was at the infrastructure planning phase.

“The decisions made at this [the planning] stage establish the trajectory for the rest of the infrastructure lifecycle. It is at this stage that important decisions like location, design and management of asset interdependencies are made beyond the resilience of the infrastructure asset itself. It is also when shared responsibility for outcomes can be built between government and the community, which is crucially important.”

The Australian Infrastructure Plan

As an independent infrastructure advisor, Infrastructure Australia is releasing the 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan in September. The Plan will detail pragmatic reforms to deliver improved services and sustainable infrastructure across Australian cities, regional centres, rural and remote areas.

The first Australian Infrastructure Plan was published in 2016 and incorporated 78 recommendations for all levels of government with regards to infrastructure challenges. In May, Infrastructure Australia published a review of the 2016 plan, which found that governments across Australia were at varying stages of progress against the reform recommendations in the 2016 Plan.

Developed following consultation on the 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit report, the 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan will take those recommendations to a new level, offering guidelines that should be considered not just at the planning phase, but throughout the projects’ development, Ms Madew explained.

Alongside embedding resilience considerations at the early planning phase, Australian Infrastructure has identified seven key factors that should be considered in project development to achieve resilient outcomes. These factors, according to Ms Madew, include:

  • Resourcefulness: The ability of operators, users and infrastructure itself to respond to and manage shock event in a timely manner;
  • Robustness: The ability to withstand disasters and future changes in climate without significant damage or disruption;
  • Redundancy: Maintaining operations without significant deterioration in quality or value through additional capacity, flexible systems and substitution;
  • Recovery: Responding to and mitigating the consequences of system failures;
  • Adaptability: The ability to continually assess, build knowledge, learn, and improve to inform future decisions;
  • Integration: The extent to which resilience is imbedded in all decision-making across systems, sectors, activities and risks;
  • Inclusivity: The ability to involve all citizens and stakeholders to reflect diversity of those using or in proximity to the infrastructure.

Infrastructure Australia is working in collaboration with other industry associations such as ISC and Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) to develop a collaborative roadmap for the sector. The partnership has already published a set of sustainability principles to provide clear strategic direction to governments at all levels and the infrastructure sector around how to promote sustainable infrastructure.

A common definition

But why is it important to achieve a unified definition of sustainability?

“Although sustainability is commonly referenced across all forms of infrastructure, the outcomes being sought are often narrow and unaligned,” Ms Madew noted.

“For example, decision makers typically focus on one issue, such as emission reduction or waste reduction, without considering other potential benefits. As a result, cost effective sustainable practises that deliver broad outcomes in the best interest of the community are often overlooked.”

But ignoring these outcomes is a missed opportunity and risks increased costs and a lower quality of life for future generations, according to Ms Madew.

“Infrastructure Australia takes the view that sustainability and sustainable infrastructure are contingent on balancing social, economic, environmental and governance considerations. Balancing outcomes across each of these four areas will help our communities prosper while not adversely impacting future generations and the planet,” she concluded.

“Access to infrastructure that is resilient, sustainable and adaptable in the face of global shocks and trends is absolutely critical for our national recovery and we are pleased to see this focus on resilience is increasingly shared and embraced by the sector more broadly.”

Embedding sustainability early

A key takeaway from the ISC Connect 2021 conference this year was to emphasise importance of embedding sustainability at early stages of infrastructure planning.

ISC has been supporting the infrastructure industry drive best practice through the Infrastructure Sustainability Rating Scheme (IS Rating Scheme) since 2012, which evaluates the sustainability performance of the quadruple bottom line of infrastructure development from governance, economic, environmental and social aspects.

ISC Chief Executive Officer Ainsley Simpson noted how the scheme has helped achieve tangible results in the industry.

“Some of the tangible impacts of the IS Rating Scheme include lifecycle stage savings such as 68 per cent in energy and energy consumption, 34 per cent in water consumption and 11 per cent in diversion of waste from landfill. And that’s just across 38 projects. The impact extends to 1.2 billion customer experience improvements through transport, utility and social provision,” she noted.

ISC offers IS Ratings for a range of infrastructure types across four rating phases, including at planning, design, as-built and operations phases. The aim of the scheme program, among other goals, is to provide a framework for consistent application and evaluation of sustainability in tendering processes and to foster innovation and continuous improvement in the sustainability outcomes from infrastructure.

This article is part of a series featuring key messages delivered at the ISCA Connect Conference 2021 in May.


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