Canadian Government Executive - Volume 24 - Issue 02

March/April 2018 // Canadian Government Executive / 19 infrastructure The use of nano-sensors, the RFID / In- ternet of Things (IoT), transponders, new construction techniques and materials, and the challenges of climate-change resil- ience should radically alter the infrastruc- ture of the near future, including how it is designed, procured and financed. Should bridges, social housing units, long-term care beds and elementary schools continue to be built and rebuilt piecemeal? Or, will they be “bundled” for design, financing and delivery earlier and at lower cost? Will more and increasingly expensive acute care hospital facilities continue to be the way to deal with the wave of chronic diseases among Boomers? Will we need as many conventional post-secondary campuses and programs, when the world’s best thinkers and researchers are as close as your smart phone, and businesses cannot recruit tech- nical workers with contemporary skills for the digital age? Developing criteria, using evidence and business cases, and greater respect for ex- pertise and investment in areas like trans- portation planning and project financing, would help to preserve and target infra- structure budgets that, while seemingly large, do not begin to address the full scope of all requests. The role of the pri- vate sector is viewed with suspicion in some quarters. But well-structured public- private partnerships have demonstrated their capacity to get things done, on time and on budget, while still preserving the public interest, if properly regulated and if the risks are property allocated. Public- private partnerships also have great po- tential to attract investment by pubic-sec- tor pension funds, which invest billions in infrastructure around the globe. To make that possible, we may need to recognize that infrastructure is neither a social ser- vice nor an income redistribution mecha- nism, and should be paid for by those who use it and regulated accordingly. Be cautious about replacing infrastructure that is in a state of flux As Walter Gretzky famously told his son: “Skate to where the puck is going to be.” Infrastructure must be selected to serve the future needs, not just those of present (or the past). As billions are earmarked for public transit, built around a model that London and New York pioneered in the 19th century, the impact of disruptive technologies on such projects must be more explicitly addressed, notably the so- called first and last kilometre facing com- muters and other travellers. Automated vehicles, ride-sharing and shuttles, uni- versal cycling infrastructure, way-finding technologies, and intelligent transporta- tion systems will disrupt everything from municipal transit and roadway design, to community planning and housing afford- ability and availability. Pick the right planning horizon and the right scale While the four-year electoral cycle may be too short, letting the useful life of in- frastructure determine its planning ho- rizon may be equally flawed. Modern infrastructure will have to meet future needs we cannot know with certainty. The capacity to produce “light” infrastructure, with lower cost and shorter life-expectan- cy may allow (or require) infrastructure to be repurposed, recycled, or adapted to changing market conditions, economic and fiscal imperatives, and consumer preferences. Innovations like locally gen- erated electricity, drone and dirigible ap- plications in heavy construction and rural “product fulfillment”, and rural mobile broadband may well transform much of Canada’s rural and northern landscape and its economy. While infrastructure conjures up visions of dams and power grids, 60 per cent of Canada’s infrastructure is in the hands of local authorities, and much of it was built on a very local scale. In the 21st century, Canadians will increasingly live “region- ally”, reflecting the nature of the global economy, transportation-enabled social interaction, and regional ecological sys- tems, like watersheds. Where some local infrastructure may be inefficient now or in the future, regional and commercial solutions may provide economies of scale and in-depth capacity, for everything from water, wastewater and transport systems to the organization and design of First Nations communities and their regional economies. Link infrastructure to other policy goals Building infrastructure makes a major claim on public finances and on the pa- tience of the people and businesses that must await its arrival and endure its construction. Infrastructure projects can improve economic productivity, gener- ate collateral economic activity, promote social inclusion and minority employ- ment, and aid community building and technological innovation. Community benefit agreements and community im- pact agreements have demonstrated their value in leveraging public investment in infrastructure and in earning the “social license” for major infrastructure projects. Infrastructure projects can also stumble when planning, environmental assess- ment and decision-making processes de- signed for a bygone era impede the abil- ity to make the evidence-based, correct infrastructure choices and speed them to completion with a minimum of delay and disruption. Recent history is replete with instances where political preferences, aesthetic considerations or parochial in- terests have added unnecessarily to con- struction or operating costs, or impaired operational performance, or rejected po- tential to generate sustainable, regulated revenues. Using these five touchstones, policy makers in government and beyond have the opportunity to design infrastructure programs and deliver infrastructure proj- ects that will serve all Canadians for years to come. M ichael F enn is Senior Advisor, StrategyCorp.