Infrastructure Stewardship in an era of biological threat

This article was first published by Customer Stewardship Australia in April 2020. http://www.customerstewardship.com

Infrastructure the world over has been caught off guard by Coronavirus 19 which has highlighted the unique challenges for infrastructure assets operating in an era of biological threats.

Spatial distancing, so critical to controlling the spread of the virus, runs counter to one of the primary purposes of infrastructure – bringing people together. While digital infrastructure has been invaluable in maintaining business, education and social connectiveness during the crisis, this distance can never fully replace face to face experiences and is not conducive to long term mental health.

Infrastructure that has been designed primarily with economic efficiency in mind now needs to be recalibrated with a view to keeping our society connected and our economy operating while also stopping the transmission of biological disease.  The pursuit of efficiency (ie doing more with less) must make room for a requirement of resilience (ie being adaptive to changing circumstances to aid recovery). Improving the effectiveness of infrastructure assets and networks involves developing many nodes that are interconnected and decentralised to ensure that the failure of one node does not bring down the whole system.

The centralisation of infrastructure is evidence throughout the modern, world be that in travel with large airports and train stations, storage and distribution of potable water, major energy generation and poles and wires, shopping in large retail shopping malls and large hospital precincts for healthcare. While this centralisation has been critical for scale and cost efficiency, it can also increase security risks posed by terrorism and infectious diseases.

A decentralised approach that is more resilient to biological risk would involve a greater number of smaller interconnected assets. In the case of hospitals, it would refocus to local and mobile clinics closer to the end customer. In the case of airports, this would involve more collaborative rather than competitive relationship with regional airports with the capacity to support larger long-haul aircrafts. Whatever the sector, more nodes would allow authorities greater flexibility to close specific routes and isolate specific places without shutting down the whole system. This will imply greater cost but we must also be more conscious as to the benefits in light of COVID-19.

Infrastructure system design must seek to accommodate greater spare capacity to reduce the risk of single points of failure.  It’s been apparent just how important private transport has been for safely accessing medical help and maintaining households during this pandemic. The future implications of this does not have to mean more private vehicles although more accessible parking could assist in certain situations. Rather, it points to expanding other private options like e-scooters and e-bikes, collectively referred to as active or micro transport that could be called on in greater numbers when outbreaks occur and the need for social distancing arises again.

Just as excess capacity is needed in transport networks, the same in true for potable water. Even though COVID 19 has not been detected in potable water the risk of water transmission remain a possibility for future diseases. Systems to support more than one way to store and distribute water should be developed to pre-empt possible future biological risk where water is a viable means of transmission.

Rapid urbanisation and environmental practices such as cutting down forests increase the risks that previously harmless microbes will from time to time spill over into human bodies and cause devastating outbreaks. While this provides further reason to protect the environment, it also requires us to fundamentally change our approach to infrastructure development.

The challenges posed in making infrastructure networks more resilient to biological threats are not going to be addressed through private actors operating alone or governments mandating it.  A high degree of collaboration is called for from infrastructure operators working with their peers and overseas counterparts to ensure that private capital and public policy imperatives can continue to adapt and co-exist in a post COVID-19 world.

Published by garrybowditch

Garry Bowditch is the Executive Director of the Better Infrastructure Initiative at the John Grill Centre, The University of Sydney. He advises governments and private sector organisations in Australia and around the world on infrastructure planning, private sector financing and funding, project delivery and management of major infrastructure.

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