By Garry Bowditch, Executive Director, Better Infrastructure Initiative, John Grill Centre for Project Leadership.
Infrastructure will continue to be a focal point for the political and business arena through 2017. The nation’s enthusiasm for better infrastructure services is strong, but the ability to deliver against these expectations is hampered. Out-dated governance and short-term focus on inputs is preventing the nation from listening to those that matter.
Australia, along with the rest of the OECD shares a common challenge of needing to improve the quality of project selection. A big part of the problem is that governments misallocate the use of their time and capital in trying to pick winning technologies and assets to build.
The centre’s Better Infrastructure Initiative has argued for change. Government policymakers need to shift their mindset and be more agnostic to technology and building physical assets. Instead, they need to prescribe clear service outcomes and how these will change over the long economic life of the asset. Enabling the market to work out the best solutions can be a more reliable way forward.
Importantly, this approach shifts the onus of innovation and customer satisfaction to those that are better equipped to deal with the risks of delivery and operations. These skills are more readily available in the private sector, but they need to be enabled not extinguished.
Delivering the wrong project on time and to budget is a hollow achievement. Despite competent project leadership, when projects are poorly conceived the consequences are long lasting.
The Prime Minister recently addressed the National Press Club raising the role of technology in energy policy. In what is a highly charged debate over the best way to reduce carbon emissions and deliver affordable, reliable and secure energy, Mr Turnbull stated "the next incarnation of our national energy policy should be technology agnostic. It’s security and cost that matters most, not how you deliver it".
These are fine sentiments and the first signs of a potential policy shift. There is a real opportunity for Australia to lead the world with reform where a government sets standards and outcomes, not the technology.
Such an approach might help fix a chronic global problem. A World Bank study (Straub, 2008) showed that for OCED nations there is potential for up to a third of infrastructure investment as being ineffective, and at worse negative to economic output. The findings for developed nations are much worse with 55 per cent of infrastructure investment having no effect on economic output.
One possible fix is to adopt customer-led infrastructure. It acknowledges that the customer is more concerned with service outcomes of the infrastructure assets, and less with the ‘physical assets’ that deliver those services.
From this perspective, the Prime Minister’s call for an “agnostic technology” approach is definitely a step in the right direction, providing there is a commitment to back this up with much needed reform across all infrastructure sectors.
An important conundrum that is stretching our minds at the Better Infrastructure Initiative, is how to initiate a more agnostic approach to selecting and committing resources to infrastructure, so whether you build new or not, the assets adapt to the changing demands that community and customers require of it, especially when economic life of assets exceeds 20 years.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge is a case in point. In 1932 at its opening, the bridge had two railway lines and pedestrian walkway along with a north and southbound lanes for traffic, divided by a simple white line along the middle of the deck. With about 98 percent spare capacity at the time, the bridge is now exceeding its expected use in every possible way. Indeed, its operational complexity today with eight lanes of contra-flow traffic bears little resemblance to its origins.
Infrastructure assets can and should have many lives. Power stations become art galleries like The Tate - London, schools become age care facilities, technology start up hubs and emergency relief centres, railroads evolve into urban parkland (NYC, Highline) and train stations to urban habitats.
The life of a project director in this dynamic and adaptive world continues to be reshaped. Projects that have less definite hard boundaries in both space and time are already becoming the new norm. The process of orchestrating people and resources towards shifting targets and outcomes will demand leaders that can synthesise actionable agenda and where there is high uncertainty, risk and community activism. Many readers involved in major projects will already relate to these circumstances.
Being agnostic about technology and projects is about understanding the long game, and how leaders conduct themselves. Dictating to communities’ on what and how they will use infrastructure is old world; the ‘expert knows best’ will not be taken for granted but contested.
Leadership of projects and communities for the 22nd century starts today.
Could it be that the great infrastructure outcomes of the future and the leaders that make it happen will be defined as better listeners and interpreters of customers and the community? Now that is a special breed of leader, let's call them ‘project whisperers’.