Meet Australia’s new infrastructure chief

As she takes the reins as Chief Executive of the nation’s independent infrastructure advisor, Romilly Madew AO outlines her vision for Infrastructure Australia and the challenges ahead for the sector.

What attracted you to this role at Infrastructure Australia?

After 13 years leading the Green Building Council of Australia, I wanted to take on a role that drew on my long-held passion for creating more sustainable, productive and liveable communities. I am looking forward to turning my focus to ensuring Infrastructure Australia continues to provide the advice, research, advocacy and collaboration needed to deliver better infrastructure for all Australians.

This is an organisation that I am incredibly passionate about and proud to be leading, because infrastructure is fundamental to our quality of life. It connects us to economic, education and social opportunities. It supports our health, safety and security. It provides us with the essential services we rely on — from energy, water and telecommunications, to social infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and parks, and access to fresh produce and other goods that most Australians could not imagine living without.

However, too often, our infrastructure doesn’t meet community expectations. Congestion, overcrowding, rising bills, outages and declining service standards are undermining public confidence in our infrastructure. These are also signals that our infrastructure needs to work harder to support Australia into the future.

When Australia’s governments invest well, there is a clear opportunity to unlock the nation’s potential, reduce congestion on our infrastructure networks, and raise the standard of living in our cities and regions. Infrastructure Australia’s independent, evidence-based advice is crucial to achieving this future. We have a responsibility to take a longer-term view of our collective needs as a nation — one that enables our leaders to look beyond elections and budgetary cycles to pursue the infrastructure investments that will improve our quality of life.

What are you hoping to achieve in your tenure as Chief Executive?

Since its establishment, Infrastructure Australia (IA) has played an important role in championing best practice in the infrastructure sector, advocating improvements in infrastructure and promoting public awareness. I plan on continuing this focus, working with the team and stakeholders to deliver advice and support to drive transformation in the sector.

Infrastructure Australia works closely across government jurisdictions on the feasibility and quality of major infrastructure proposals. This is on the basis of rigorous analysis of costs and benefits from an economic, environmental and land use perspective, and includes business case development and project selection.

Infrastructure Australia has developed an assessment process for major infrastructure, with one clear aim — to ensure that public funds are directed towards projects that will deliver the best outcomes for Australians. Quality business case development is critical to ensure public funds are spent where they are needed most, and this remains an important focus for the organisation.

As part of working with jurisdictions to support the improvement of business case quality, Infrastructure Australia hosts Business Case Improvement workshops across the country. Over the past year this has been attended by more than 300 project proponents, government officials and their advisors. Through this process, we have seen a real improvement in the number and quality of proposals submitted for inclusion on the Infrastructure Priority List.

However, it is critical that we remain focused on selecting the right projects, and ensuring public infrastructure funds are spent where they are needed most. Well-developed business cases, supported by early project development studies, such as strategic options analysis, feasibility studies and cost-benefit analysis, help ensure that the right infrastructure solution is selected.

Another area of focus will be to continue the already groundbreaking work Infrastructure Australia has done through providing advice on Australia’s current and future infrastructure needs and priorities through the Reform Series and Infrastructure Priority List.

I am also focused on driving greater collaboration with our stakeholders across government, industry and the community. This collaboration could include considering the sectors capacity and capability to identify opportunities to increase this to deliver the number of projects currently underway and planned. Likewise, the Infrastructure Australia I lead will seek to be a valued collaborator to ensure that infrastructure decision-makers are always planning for the future, and our investment and reform agenda is evolving to meet the challenges ahead.

What are currently the key challenges you see for the infrastructure sector?

Infrastructure has been fundamental to Australia’s economic success to date, supporting a world-class standard of living that is rightly a source of national pride. However, when it comes to delivering the infrastructure we need, the sector is facing a period of unique uncertainty.

What makes Australia unique is:

  • Our population is growing and changing
  • The structure of the economy is shifting away from manufacturing and resources towards knowledge-based industries
  • Our communities and natural environment are experiencing weather extremes
  • Rapid technological change is fundamentally reshaping our day-to-day lives

Looking to the future, it is clear that as the needs of our communities evolve, our infrastructure will likely look very different to what we have experienced in the past. Access to appropriate skills at all levels is also a key challenge for the sector. For major projects in our faster growing cities, the largest skill constraints are among professional project managers, bid teams and skilled labour.

Our research has also found that professional skills in the rail sector, electricity network maintenance and emerging technology sectors face long-term constraints. In regional centres and remote areas, attracting and retaining a semi-skilled construction work force is a key challenge for industry.

What are some of the current technologies or innovations that you think will have the biggest impact on the sector?

Rapid technological change is fundamentally changing how people interact with infrastructure, and how services are delivered. In particular, smarter mobility through electrification, automation and rapid improvements in communications technology is having a transformative effect on our cities.

New service models such as on-demand, rideshare and carshare are disrupting the transport market in particular, and these trends are being complemented by improvements in digital communications, which allow access to real-time information and new user experiences.

The pace and scale of technological change today provide profound opportunities for the Australian infrastructure sector — to improve quality of life, provide better access to services, enhance productivity and grow new industries. However, technological advancements and data generation also create new challenges around control and privacy of data, and raise questions around how to ensure the benefits of technological advancement are available to all Australians.

Infrastructure Australia’s forthcoming release, the 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit, will take stock of the most important issues facing the sector as we prepare for a changing future, and work towards better leveraging Australia’s technological expertise.

What should industry expect from the 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit?

The 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit covers transport, energy, telecommunications, water and — for the first time — social infrastructure. It highlights the key issues and trends impacting each sector, as well as the challenges requiring action in the near future. It’s the second Audit Infrastructure Australia has undertaken, after the first was published in 2015, and focuses on outcomes for users in terms of access, quality and cost.

The Audit is crucial to ensure Australia’s infrastructure not only keeps pace with demand, but also helps to unlock future growth. Rather than adopt conventional state and territory boundaries, it will frame infrastructure needs by the type of community or area they serve. We have identified the different needs and challenges of fast-growing cities, smaller cities and regional centres, small towns, remote communities, and developing regions.

The 2019 Audit also takes a user-based approach, with an emphasis on increasing access and understanding of Australia’s infrastructure at all levels. It will focus on understanding the role infrastructure plays in supporting Australians’ diverse lives, now and into the future.

What’s next for Infrastructure Australia following the release of the 2019 Audit?

The 2019 Audit provides governments, industry and the community with an evidence-based view of the challenges and opportunities facing our infrastructure.

It will also become the foundation of Infrastructure Australia’s future research program, and help us to identify the most pressing opportunities for investment for the 2020 Infrastructure Priority List.

Following the release of the Audit, we will invite all stakeholders and the public to provide feedback and submissions. The results of this three-month consultation will inform the development of the next Australian Infrastructure Plan.

Romilly Madew AO is a keynote speaker at the 2019 Asset Management for Critical Infrastructure Conference where she will further explore the industry insights from the 2019 Infrastructure Audit and look into comprehensive resilience strategies to ensure optimal lifecycle of Australia’s assets. For more information, visit assetmanagementevent.com.au.

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