How do we face an uncertain future?

Professor Ken Maher AO, Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC)

The latest Infrastructure Australia Audit lays it out in black and white. We face a “future of uncertainty”. But how do we tackle the challenges of this “unprecedented period of uncertainty”? There is a simple answer – by investing in research and innovation.

The Australian Infrastructure Audit, released earlier this week, serves as a serious wake-up call.

More than $123 billion of work has commenced since the last audit in 2015, and another $200 billion is in the pipeline. But with Australia’s population projected to grow by 23.7 per cent over the next 15 years, this level of spending must be the “new normal”, Infrastructure Australia’s chief executive officer Romilly Madew says.

This tidal wave of infrastructure spending may be the “new normal” but that doesn’t mean we can continue with our “business as usual” approach to infrastructure delivery.

A changing climate, global geopolitical uncertainty, population growth and rapid technological advancements are reshaping our cities and our lives.

In the three years between audits, population growth has put our largest cities and their “ageing assets” under further strain. Rising road congestion and crowding on public transport continues to erode our quality of life, and despite significant investment the cost to the economy could spiral to nearly $39 billion by 2031.

Meanwhile, our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and our carbon footprint per capita are double the OECD average. Infrastructure is the most significant contributor to Australia’s emissions profile, and it is generally recognised that our 2030 Paris Agreement targets are currently at risk.

Perhaps most important of all, Infrastructure Australia highlights the growth and development fatigue within communities. Community opposition has “mothballed” more than $20 billion of infrastructure projects in the last decade.

Infrastructure Australia emphasises “constant and rapid change”, especially technological, is creating challenges for the way we plan, deliver and operate infrastructure. Ridesharing services have tripled in just three years, for instance, while electric vehicles are expected to account for 40 per cent of all vehicles by 2040.

The challenges ahead loom large, and Infrastructure Australia’s comprehensive and considered work sheds light on those challenges. But we also need an integrated, data-driven and evidence-based approach to infrastructure – and that demands a huge investment in research and innovation.

Enter the proposed Future Cities Cooperative Research Centre (CRC). More than $147 million in industry-backed funding and in-kind support has been secured from the private sector, including large construction firms, product and service providers, universities, utilities and peak bodies including ASBEC. Now we need the Australian Government to come to the party.

If the bid is successful, the CRC will harness research and emerging technologies to develop new products, services and systems to better support our massive infrastructure investment. The CRC will act as a living laboratory, trialling, testing and validating innovative technologies – from analytics to artificial intelligence, digital twinning to driverless vehicles. It will build more balanced business cases to realise better value from our infrastructure, delivering efficiencies worth billions to the economy while cutting carbon emissions and congestion. Clever infrastructure design and delivery also has the overall potential for a major boost to productivity.

We know that smart technology will transform our cities – but when we are placing huge bets on an uncertain future, we need to know we are investing in the right technology. The collaborative CRC model supports rapid innovation, product development and market validation. It also improves the transparency and quality of planning and decision-making, utilising the digital revolution to achieve deeper community engagement, and thus better outcomes for the community while alleviating the pressures of rapid growth.

The Infrastructure Australia Audit outlines the challenges ahead as we face a future of uncertainty. Now we need solutions. The proposed Future Cities CRC is the perfect vehicle to research and roll-out those solutions.

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