Research Article: Infrastructure

Critical Infrastructure

By: The Economist

The critical role of infrastructure for Global Sustainable
Development Goals.

Infrastructure is crucial for development.  From transport systems to power-generation facilities and water and sanitation networks, it provides the services that enable society to function and economies to thrive.  This puts infrastructure at the very heart of efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 


Encompassing everything from health and education for all to access to energy, clean water and sanitation, most of the SDGs imply improvements in infrastructure.  Infrastructure plays a key role in all three dimensions of sustainable development: the economy, the environment and society.


And now, as the world seeks to meet ambitious targets, such as the SDGs (as set out in the global Agenda 2030) and the Paris Agreement on climate change, infrastructure is becoming more widely recognised.

Infrastructure should not be viewed as individual assets, such as a power plant, a hospital or a water network, but as part of a system with a portfolio of assets that collectively hold great potential to deliver the three pillars of the SDGs: economic, environmental and social sustainability.


When it comes to the economy, infrastructure dividends range from the jobs created during
construction and maintenance to the ability for infrastructure to generate economic activity (such
as a bridge that links a rural village to urban markets).  By connecting communities to cities, education and employment, infrastructure such as transportation and telecommunications underpins national economic goals.  In fact, increasing investment in line with economic needs could add about 0.6% to global GDP, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.  It suggests the effect could be more pronounced in larger countries that currently have infrastructure gaps (in the US, it puts the figure at about 1.3%, and in Brazil at 1.5%).

In protecting the environment, infrastructure assets play a key role in conserving natural resources
and reducing the impact of climate change.  Clean energy generation plants, for example, are critical in reducing dependence on fossil fuels.  By taking cars off roads, mass transit systems contribute to the reduction in pollution and generation of greenhouse gases.  In the US, estimates are that if someone commuting 20 miles a day switches from driving to public transportation, it would lower their carbon footprint by 4,800 pounds annually.

When equitable access is assured, society benefits from infrastructure since it delivers the services
(such as power supplies, healthcare services and sewerage networks) that are essential for sustainable development.  Whether by providing the public transport that makes it easier for women in rural areas to participate in the workforce or the clean water and sanitation that reduce maternal mortality, infrastructure also advances gender equality.  “When systems and projects are being conceived of, that’s where critical consideration of needs - who needs what from infrastructure and who gets it - and the equity dimensions of infrastructure come in,” says Jim Hall, professor of climate and environmental risk at the University of Oxford.

Meanwhile, one of infrastructure’s most important roles - increasing resilience - runs across all
three of these pillars.  First, the infrastructure must itself be resilient to the shocks and stresses it will encounter.  This in turn enables it to make an essential contribution to sustainable development and overall societal resilience by ensuring that the vital services infrastructure provides are less vulnerable to extreme events and disruptions.

“In the end, what people care about are services,” says Marianne Fay, chief economist for climate
change at the World Bank.  “We look at infrastructure primarily from the point of view of providing
services to people.  That’s the end goal, and the hope is that we can do that in a way that will be resilient and sustainable in all three dimensions of sustainability: economic, environmental and social.”

What emerges from our study is that while the economic, environmental and social dividends of
infrastructure are considerable, tough challenges - from governance weaknesses to financing gaps - make it difficult for countries to meet the rapidly growing demand for infrastructure.  Added to this are the challenges of siloed approaches, both within government and between sectors and different parts of the infrastructure ecosystem.

What our research reveals is that sustainable infrastructure can only be delivered when all three
pillars - economic, environmental and social - are considered together, while also ensuring
infrastructure services are resilient and can be equitably accessed.  Moreover, all stakeholders have to collaborate in planning, design, delivery and management.


Finally, infrastructure should be seen not as an end in itself but a means of delivering essential services.  “We need to make a shift to thinking about infrastructure as what it does - protects, connects or provides essential services - not what it is,” says Jo da Silva, founder and director, International Development, at engineering consultancy Arup.  “It is infrastructure that is brokering our ability to manage finite resources and get those resources to where there are human needs.