Communities to create not obstruct

Communities to create not obstruct

New developments present understandable challenges for existing communities. But communities need to stop opposing new development and instead demand a higher calibre of infrastructure outcome if collectively we are to make progress and get the productivity-enhancing infrastructure Australia needs.

Here we go again

I am starting to feel like Phil the weatherman in the film Groundhog Day. Phil gets caught in a blizzard that he didn’t predict and finds himself trapped in a time warp, doomed to relive the same day over and over again until he gets it right. This is how I feel as I read each new report and article on the local and global infrastructure challenge. None of them are poor, but they are increasingly echoing the same message without much sign of progress on the ground.

Cheaper, better infrastructure is possible

In McKinsey’s latest installment on infrastructure [1], they argue (as others and I have also done) that it’s possible to deliver infrastructure more cheaply and effectively. They argue that governments globally could boost infrastructure productivity by $1 trillion annually in three ways: improving project selection, streamlining delivery, and making better use of existing infrastructure.

Furthermore, McKinsey notes that a lack of finance is not an impediment; it’s a lack of confidence that investors will get a return on their investment. It’s a sentiment I heard expressed directly by investors at a World Economic Forum meeting in Sydney a few years ago.

Few real performance incentives

Regrettably there’s not a lot of political incentive to plan projects well from the start as the planning and delivery process of capital projects extends across political cycles. There’s often not a lot of incentive for the developers of infrastructure to innovate and take on risk beyond that required of them.

The situation isn’t simple of course; indeed planning and developing infrastructure is increasingly complex. But this complexity can be exploited as people cherry-pick data and perspectives to support their ideological case.

Beyond simplicity and opposition

Collectively, we can’t permit the simplistic public debate on infrastructure to perpetuate, nor opposition to development as the default position, because it serves the community poorly and we know we can do so much better. It’s time that communities demanded a generative, sustainable form of development rather than no development, and we rolled up their sleeves as constructive participants in its design.

Real measures of progress

Critically the community must also demand evidence of real progress and return on public investment. This means outcome-based measures that are meaningful and accessible to everyone. Measures that make it clear what progress means and for whom. Measures that reflect how a system is performing, not just discrete elements.

For example, instead of putting a major road project in competition with a rail project, we should be demanding clear information about how any project enhances the performance of the whole transport system and do so cost-effectively. It would likely lead to a different mix of projects, probably smaller, and lacking the sexy ground-breaking media opportunities. Governments would then need to be rewarded for real progress – sustained improvements in transport system outcomes.

Don’t tell me, show me

I’ve found in the past that clients who are serious about making useful changes and taking on new ideas have an attitude of “Don’t tell me. Show me. Get alongside me and put your ideas into practice.” It’s an attitude that we could all benefit from. It’s time for a shared public-private-community commitment to ratcheting up the calibre of dialogue in favour of development, with greater clarity about the form of development we want and evidence that it’s being systemically, cost-efficiently delivered.

[1] Nicklas Garemo, Martin Hjerpe, and Jan Mischke (2015) The infrastructure conundrum: Improving productivity, McKinsey & Company, July 2015.