The principles may seem obvious, but it's surprising how many are overlooked in the rush to build, explains ICE Fellow Keith Howells.
In amongst the chatter about how we can 'do' infrastructure better, there's now a growing consensus that we need to improve the way we design our interventions - 'design' in the broader sense of the word, rather than the narrow sense we tend to use as engineers.
But if we're going to 'build back better' (and greener), what might that mean in practice?
My front-end principles for better infrastructure
Over the course of my career, the following front-end principles have served well to ensure we think through, before we rush in where angels fear to tread.
- Be clear about the purpose and the expected outcomes, and engage communities in decision-making through an effective communication strategy.
- Prioritise the user, aiming to offer services that are modern, effective and affordable.
- Seek to improve people's quality of life and support the transition to a more sustainable future, while also facilitating the functioning of the economy, enhancing productivity and accommodating growth (to the extent possible, given other competing objectives).
- Extract greatest value from existing infrastructure through timely maintenance, repurposing, renewal and upgrading. Seek to remove constraints and bottlenecks.
- Aim to make best use of data, automation, innovation and technology (including for future asset management), recognising the complexity and risks this may introduce.
- Recognise, analyse, mitigate and manage technical, environmental and climate risks, and complete any surveys necessary to support this.
- Improve governance, with robust, timely and transparent decision-making, supported by strong evidence-based planning, clear prioritisation, and best practice technical design and delivery.
- Seek an appropriate funding balance between 'user pays' and general taxation which incentivises behaviours in the best long-term social, economic and environmental interests.
- Complete well-evidenced business cases and risk assessments of proposed initiatives before embarking on projects, including financing proposals. Aim to allocate the risks identified to those best able to carry them.
- Facilitate collaboration between the government and business to promote delivery of the broader social, economic and environmental benefits.
Clearly, there are many other issues to consider as a project develops, and the above principles may seem obvious to some, and a counsel of perfection to others, but it's surprising how many are overlooked in the rush to build.
Learning from the past
There are bound to be compromises, as not all of the aims will be mutually achievable. But it's important that the choices made are articulated and debated. One doesn't have to look too far back in the project history books to recognise examples where:
- The purpose of a project was never clearly communicated resulting in community unrest or broad dissent.
- HS2 is an example where the initial stress on high speed, rather than (much-needed) additional route capacity, contributed to significant opposition. The subsequent argument that if you’re going to build a new railway it might as well be high speed did not convince the sceptics, and arguments around reducing carbon by replacing short haul flights came much later.
- The requirements of the users (or operators) of the infrastructure were never fully understood, leading to sub-optimal performance or subsequent retrofit.
- For example, an irrigation project was designed on a 10-day irrigation cycle as this was determined by the project agronomist to be 'optimal'. However, it did not take account of the social preferences of the farmers, who preferred to receive (a lesser amount of) water at the same time, each week.
- Attention to sustainability was an afterthought rather than being built into the project design.
- While generally recognised as a sustainable project, a retrospective analysis of the Boston Barrier showed that if the UN SDGs had been considered systematically in the broad design of the project at the outset, even more could have been achieved at little additional cost.
- Reusing or repurposing existing assets was overlooked in the rush for a shiny new structure.
- New technology was introduced without fully understanding its complexity, recognising that the flip side of innovation is risk which needs to be recognised and managed. In most cases, this issue is eventually worked through, but not without additional cost and delay.
- Construction was started before the technical design was sufficiently complete, and often without the benefit of adequate surveys.
- The Edinburgh tram project was a classic example where the risk associated with the state of the utilities was unclear or unknown at the time of contract award, resulting in significant delays and cost over-runs.
- Projects were delayed by slow decision-making, often associated with one of the other issues noted which had not been adequately addressed.
- Completed projects failed to perform financially because the funding model (the balance between user pays and taxpayer pays) was over-optimistic and revenue risk poorly allocated.
- There are many examples of this in the toll roads sector, with some significant financial failures leading to costly damaging law suits – the Brisbane Airport Link Road in Australia, for example.
I leave it to the reader to reflect on the above examples, although sadly there are several which fall into each category.
But as we move forward with the National Infrastructure Strategy, Projects Pipeline, and net-zero and levelling-up agendas, let's hope we can truly 'build back better' (and greener) by paying attention to the front-end principles outlined above.