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DIY infrastructure is a must

Why wait for government?

Self- starters in our communities can help solve the $47b problem of deteriorating infrastructure and inject much needed dynamism into infrastructure for communities of the future.

The nation’s infrastructure should always be a catalyst for wealth creation and opportunity for customers and the community it serves.

Australia’s 2017 rich list of property tycoons, technologists and business greats embodies the logic of infrastructure – it makes those it serves better off.

It is hard to imagine anyone on the rich list waiting for government to make the first move. And that’s exactly what’s needed to permeate every layer of business and community enterprise.

Imagine Australia’s future GDP outlook if the nation did not throwaway enormous opportunities for productivity growth and entrepreneurial uplift in one of its most fundamental sectors, infrastructure.

Australia has been too obsessed with making infrastructure reliable and boring, resulting in conservatism and flatfooted embrace of new technology and sluggish take up of community preferences for different infrastructure services across energy, transport, water and waste.

The epicentre of infrastructure in 21st Century has shifted to bespoke services, data that enables informed choice for the customer and improved system-wide performance regardless of government silos.

Australia can make this transition easier with more infrastructure protagonists from outside government. The John Grill’s Centre, Better Infrastructure Initiative’s latest policy outlook paper, released today makes the case that the nation is well endowed with self-starters, independently minded people that have a strong sense of community and customers.

The only problem is that these infrastructure protagonists are crowded out by a government knows best mentality; unfortunately too many businesses are now accepting this doctrine surrendering leadership to be a follower.

It was not always the case, and exceptions still exist today that must inspire us to a better infrastructure model. Governments’ just need to make room for more protagonists and be less constraining in letting their talents shine.

John Wagner is one such infrastructure protagonist, recently completing Australia’s first international airport in forty years, Wellcamp Airport - West Brisbane.

Treated with scepticism from bureaucracy, industry and financiers, the Wagner’s decided to wait for nobody, and invested at least $250m of their own cash. In doing so, the airport is showing early signs of a successful business and Toowoomba’s regional development is reinvigorating itself around this important new facility.

There are dozens of examples of Australia’s DIY infrastructure protagonists making a difference but their reach and impact is most urgently needed in the neglected community sector.

It is time for communities to get back to their historical roots and seize the opportunity to determine the local amenity they want without waiting for government to tell them what, when and how they will get it.

Melbourne’s bay side suburb of Beaumaris did just that conceiving, financing and building new sports facility, and brought sporting codes and government along with them.

The John Grill Centre’s Better Infrastructure Initiative has assessed that there is ample scope to take the Beaumaris community protagonist example to a national scale through what we have called a Community Infrastructure Ecosystem. There is a $47b problem of deteriorating assets in this sector but when viewed through a DIY protagonist lens it is also brimming with investment opportunities for banks, superannuation funds and philanthropic capital.

Last weeks Federal Court decision to allow higher electricity prices may turn out to be an own goal for network owners; time will tell and DIY energy protagonists will play a central role in the final outcome.

New energy protagonists like Power Ledger use data, big system thinking and block chain payment technology to fuse together customer-led services, just out of reach of regulators and government. What if these protagonists could step out from behind the electricity meter to challenge the nation’s stale and potentially redundant central generation and electricity distribution networks?

By agreeing the log of claims from network owners one outcome is certain. The relative price of centrally despatched electricity compared with more expensive (but declining cost) of household renewable energy production and storage just got closer, signalling to customers off grid solutions might be a better and more viable match to their needs.

All DIY infrastructure protagonists break the mould of government planning and disturbed the status quo releasing back into the economy essential nutrients of economic growth including risk taking, dynamism and innovation.

Government can’t do it all, and nor should they as wealth creation and economic opportunity must come from business. That is why customer-led DIY protagonists are Australia’s No. 1 priority.

Garry Bowditch is Executive Director of the Better Infrastructure Initiative, John Grill Centre for Project Leadership at the University of Sydney. Read the The John Grill Centre’s latest Policy Outlook Paper, Why wait for government? Customer-led DIY Infrastructure, Australia’s No. 1 priority.