Revolutionising how we think about infrastructure
Photo: Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project in Korea Photo (by stari4ekm, Flickr)
Nowadays, we mostly live in cities, and the way we live in cities is mostly unsustainable. What if we started to expect something quite different from the infrastructure that makes it possible for us to live in such close quarters? What if, instead of seeking to reduce the environmental impact of construction, we sought net-positive outcomes from our infrastructure – improvements in the local economy, environment, and society?
This big idea underpins a program of work underway at ISF that will culminate in a bid to the Australian Research Council’s Industry Transformation Research Hub program later this year.
Cynthia Mitchell, Professor of Sustainability and Deputy Director at ISF who is leading this ambitious project says:
“The idea of ‘restorative’ or ‘regenerative’ or ‘net-positive’ infrastructure is deliberately aspirational, provocative, and revolutionary”.
As leading international work on planetary boundaries demonstrates we are either transgressing or approaching limits in most of the earth’s fundamental resources and processes, we need broad scale revolutionary, rather than evolutionary, change, if all 7 billion people on the planet now, and those who follow us, are to have the opportunity to live well. Since infrastructure underpins the metabolism of our cities, it is central to the revolution.
Simply put, ‘restorative’ or ‘regenerative’ or ‘net-positive’ systems seek to ‘do more good’ rather than to ‘do less bad’, because doing less bad will not, cannot, deliver a world where we can all live well. The question we need to ask and begin to answer is what would constitute net-positive infrastructure?
What we are talking about here is the scale of transformation that economists have recognised only occurs every few generations – the end of one economic ‘long wave’ and the emergence of another enabled by the combination of creative capital and technological innovation (e.g., steam trains) that drive socio-political change. This time, the combination is the incredible shifts enabled by IT (e.g., big data and the cloud to give real-time everything) and dematerialising (service, sharing and circular ) economies.
What might this mean for our infrastructure systems? It would mean recognising that our key design parameters (e.g. demand) are shifting, gradually transforming and diversifying not just the physical infrastructure, but also the systems that surround it.
For example, our environmental regulation system might enable sewage service providers to ‘separate’ upstream, so that recovery of valuable or dangerous materials is facilitated at the scale and location that make most sense. We might engage the public in a well-informed deliberative process to come to new agreements about what level of risk, security and price are acceptable. Our economic regulators might underwrite an expansive approach to assessing value, including externalities, that facilitates real return on investment, creative capital, community and private sector investment, new forms of business, diversified products, and all of this in ways that preference long-term, societal value over short-term dividend or profit.
Olivia Seideman, who is majoring in Global Environmental Change and Sustainability at Johns Hopkins University in the US, is interning at ISF as a part of a study abroad program with the School for International Training. She is working on a paper conceptualising net positive infrastructure. In particular, she is looking at existing sustainability rating tools for both infrastructure and buildings to see what parameters and metrics might be useful for assessing regenerative infrastructure. Olivia is interested in the social sustainability aspect of regenerative infrastructure and she will be using projects such as the High Line in New York City and the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project in Korea as case studies.
The process of finding industry and academic partners is underway and anyone interested in the proposed research hub is welcome to contact Cynthia.Mitchell@uts.edu.au
Earlier versions of this article appeared in the Australian Water Association journal, Water, in September 2014 and the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering’s journal Focus, issue 187 December 2014.