By Ainsley Simpson, outgoing Chief Executive Officer, Infrastructure Sustainability Council

In her eight years at the Infrastructure Sustainability Council, Ainsley Simpson has seen tremendous change across our industry; and in particular, a swelling of support for a more sustainable infrastructure industry post-COVID. Here, Ms Simpson reflects on her time at the council, driving the sector to embrace the benefits that sustainability offers.

When the first sod on the Walkerston Bypass was turned in May 2022, some residents had been waiting more than forty years to see the day. Once complete, this 10km stretch of road will have an extraordinary impact on the local community by offering heavy vehicles a more efficient link from the northern Bowen Basin to Mackay.

The project team, led by the Queensland Government’s Department of Transport and Main Roads, overcame many challenges to achieve an IS Design Rating of ‘Excellent’. The project garnered applause for reducing embodied emissions by 53 per cent, by developing a new operational energy modelling methodology for grid emissions and by delivering a market innovation in the form of a mobile plant-mixed foamed bitumen plant.

These achievements are important for a market that is transforming. As far as the community is concerned, that around 1,000 trucks won’t trundle through the town, passing schools and businesses each day, is what really matters.

In reflecting on my six years leading the Infrastructure Sustainability Council, it may seem strange to start with a story about a small regional bypass. It’s true that I’ve seen some incredible projects take shape, from Sydney Metro to Auckland’s City Rail Link, over the last six years. But infrastructure’s most powerful impacts are in hearing directly from the people it serves.

Walkerston Bypass was not the first time this realisation came barrelling home to me. One of my very first projects, as a freshly-minted environmental consultant in South Africa, was a bulk water supply network in rural settlements which provided tap access in 200 metre intervals, uplifting health and quality of life for the people living in an entire regional council.

I could see that the benefits of infrastructure investment were enormous; but as an industry we often lost sight of who we were serving. We got more caught up in the how of delivery – the quickest and cheapest way to meet contractual and regulatory requirements – rather than the why of making people’s lives better. I joined the Infrastructure Sustainability Council in 2016, first to oversee technical and business services, before taking on the CEO role two years later. In 2018, the year of the Council’s tenth birthday, discussion about the ‘why’ did not resonate.

Purpose and impact weren’t words used in the infrastructure space. Selling the business case for sustainable infrastructure was hard enough. But several key milestones have changed the way we think about infrastructure in Australia and New Zealand, and that has driven a compelling and game-changing conversation about what sustainability delivers and who benefits.

A catalytic year for construction

I consider 2022 a catalytic year for sustainability in Australia. It was, not at all coincidentally, the 10-year anniversary for the Infrastructure Sustainability Rating Scheme, designed by industry for industry. Momentum for positive change was intensifying. In 2022, the Australian Government legislated the much-awaited net zero target.

On announcing its 43 per cent emissions reduction target by 2050, the Albanese Government mentioned ISC’s advocacy work as a proof point for action. Reshaping Infrastructure for a Net Zero Emissions Future, work which commenced in 2019 in collaboration with Climateworks Centre and ASBEC, confirmed that 70 per cent of emissions are enabled by infrastructure.

This report, coupled with Journey to Net Zero, which we developed in partnership with Roads Australia and Australian Railways Association, underscored the importance of upfront decision-making so we don’t lock in infrastructure enabled emissions for a half a century or more.

The focus on carbon has unlocked new conversations about the integrated nature of infrastructure. People acknowledged, finally, that we can’t focus on carbon without considering how we use infrastructure and the products that are embedded in our infrastructure.

That means thinking about decision making at the earliest stages – during planning, design, procurement and tendering. And that can only happen by bringing more people together, through national initiatives like Infrastructure Net Zero. Having all the relevant voices around the table elevates other areas of sustainability too – whether that’s circular economy thinking or delivering greater benefit for regional communities. Ripples turned into waves.

Another gamechanger was the IS Council’s work to quantify the return on investment of sustainable infrastructure. This cost benefit analysis confirmed higher net benefits could be achieved across all infrastructure sectors with IS Ratings. The report projected a conservative minimum of $1.60 in benefit for every dollar spent – and this figure could be as high as $2.40.

This was over and above the productivity dividend. This research encouraged people to think beyond the small slice of time in which costs matter, and instead to consider the lifetime value of infrastructure assets. Findings highlighted that the IS Rating Scheme builds capability – a value driver that began turning heads in 2022 when the industry was looking to bolster productivity, collaboration, innovation and continuous improvement.

Shifting mindsets and skillsets

And this brings me to another gamechanger. At the end of 2022, Infrastructure Australia published its market capacity report. This estimated that labour shortages had surpassed 214,000 and that we needed more than double the available workers just to complete the current pipeline of work.

Rather than maintaining a narrow focus on the asset being delivered – whether that is duplicating a rail line, building energy transition infrastructure or knocking down a stadium to build another one – a much larger proportion of the industry started talking about the people they were building for and, just as crucially, the people they were designing, building and maintaining the infrastructure with.

Pre-COVID, we were weighed down by a massive infrastructure deficit. At the time, the mindset was about cost and speed of delivery. The COVID-induced infrastructure boom showed us that we could do things differently, but we fell short on the people power. Our disrupted supply chains struggled to keep pace and procurement reform was critical.

Suddenly, the importance of technical skills and deep experience – in other words, people – became paramount. This crystalised the enormous challenge for infrastructure construction. Despite decades of effort to improve diversity, just 12 per cent of the workforce is female.

We have a huge untapped labour force of female talent in Australia; building our future nation is dependent on that talent. Recalibrating our policies and strategies to attract more women has allowed us to think differently about all people, which is building a far more inclusive industry which values and respects difference as the source of all innovation.

A more diverse workforce doesn’t just plug skills gaps. It also means we can tap into the spectrum of perspectives of people who will use our infrastructure. Every day, whether it’s the water we drink, the power we use, the way we communicate or commute to work, we are reliant on infrastructure.

Infrastructure employs 11 per cent of the Australian workforce. But 100 per cent of the Australian population is impacted by infrastructure. We didn’t always think about it this way, but infrastructure is delivered by people for people. The purpose of infrastructure is to enable people to thrive. It’s that simple.

Sprinting towards sustainability

So, what does the future of sustainable infrastructure look like? This is something I’ve been asked a lot lately, as my
tenure as CEO of the Infrastructure Sustainability Council comes to a close. In the last few years, as more people embrace best practice, we are starting to democratise sustainability in the infrastructure sector. What was once in the minds of a few people is now becoming visible at every level of every organisation and in every link in the supply chain. The load is lighter because we are lifting together.

We will have new challenges as we transition to infrastructure assets which are fit for informed long-term investors, be they public or private. What will come into even sharper focus is the need for more strategic, integrated and intergenerational planning. This means considering how our engagement practices evolve to be fit for partnership; how regulatory processes are made fit for supporting responsible delivery at pace; and how our workforce capacity readies to be fit for asset management at scale.

The four-fold growth in the IS Council’s membership is clear evidence of a profound shift in attitudes. So is the tripling of IS ratings. We had more than $297 billion of assets under rating in 2023 and an engaged member base with a combined annual turnover of more than $50 billion.

We now welcome financiers, investors, manufacturers and asset owners among our members and our team has grown to 40-plus. We can make bigger waves across a full suite of rating tools, across all asset classes, and across all Australian states and territories and in Aotearoa New Zealand. Everyone is engaged and motivated to build infrastructure by people for people. Some are in the starting blocks; others are taking giant strides ahead. It doesn’t matter where you stand, once you get started, better never stops.

Ainsley Simpson takes on a new role as inaugural Chief Executive Officer of Seamless in March 2024. The Infrastructure Sustainability Council’s board has appointed Patrick Hastings, Chief Delivery and Capability Officer, as Acting CEO.

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