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Building new infrastructures must take in account economic, environmental and social sustainability

Green  |  Sustainability

The six guiding qualities for building sustainable infrastructures

The ability of infrastructure to shape economies and societies is immense and could be used as a tool to facilitate the reinvention of the entire world of construction

Over the next few years, Italy and the European Union will be facing the biggest modernisation process in generations. The context is the post-pandemic world combined with the ecological, energy and digital transitions. A tool for this change, a line of defence, is the Next Generation EU funding programme, the Italian Recovery and Resilience Plan (PNRR). Italy will receive 191.5 billion euro of European funds to use by 2026 and one of the pillars of this unprecedented operation is infrastructure, the ‘hardware’ of the future to come. In previous decades, Italy has grown in a disorderly and disorganised manner, leaving significant social and ecological deficits in its wake. One of the objectives of the PNRR is to reignite the development process that was slowed down by the health and financial crisis, while making it sustainable in the long-term. 

Sustainability is a complex concept, a prism with many facets. There is the question of ecology, crucial for a territory like Italy which has become a hotspot of the climate crisis. Then there is the economy and a need to avoid passing down debt to successive generations. And finally, there is the social element: reducing inequality without creating new divides. Probably, one of the hardest elements to imagine in the development of a sustainable country is the building of new infrastructures. 

A reference point for this topic can be found in “Six Qualities of Sustainable Infrastructure”, a community document drafted at the end of the last Global Future Council on Infrastructure at the World Economic Forum meeting held in Dubai, a city that has also dedicated a part of the Expo 2022 event to sustainability. The document condenses the complexities of sustainable infrastructure into six key guide lines. according to the United Nations’ principles of sustainable development, research is both a map and a model for a new way to build and plan that aims to put ‘people first’. 

Benefit sharing

The first recommendation of the World Economic Forum is ‘benefit sharing’. When establishing new infrastructure, the question we should always ask is: “Who are we building this for?”. The project must be designed to increase access to essential services and reduce inequality and injustice. According to the ENGIM, Faces of Inequality and Global Call to Action Against Inequality on “Inequalities in Italy” report, 6.9% of families live in extreme poverty, and this percentage rises to 10.3%. in Southern Italy. In fact, according to Oxfam, ten million Italians have less than 400 euro in savings, a vulnerable segment of society that the pandemic has swept aside in its wake. It is a divide that is reflected in unfair gender-based, generational, territorial, logistical and technological inequalities that each new infrastructure must seek to mitigate and address. This is reiterated also in the WEF report: the new projects must improve access to water, transportation and energy; be able to cover marginal areas (e.g. in internal Italian areas there is a 25-minute wait for emergency services, 10 minutes longer than urban areas), and involve the community in a participatory design process. Infrastructures are sustainable when they are attentive to inequality. 

Environmental resilience

The second specification for a sustainable infrastructure is its ability to adapt to a changing climate. This form of sustainability must be managed by taking into account two key facets of all climate action: mitigation and adaption. Consequently, each new infrastructure must be planned within the context of reducing the impact of our economy, while keeping in mind the objectives of the Paris Agreement (containing the increase in global temperatures below 2°C and preferably 1.5°C), and the European Green Deal’s target of reducing CO₂ emissions by at least 55% by 2030 to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.These infrastructures must then be already adaptable to the changing climate and must also consider the fragilities and issues of each individual territory. For example, Italy is one of the most landslide-affected countries in the world with 12.6 million people living in high-risk areas, according to the ISPRA environmental research institute. Environmental sustainability is also economical: according to the NGO, Christian Aid, the ten most serious events of 2021 cost 150 billion euros in damages. Climate resilience is the first necessary element in every long-term public investment. 

Social acceptability

The World Economic Forum upholds that sustainable infrastructure must be inclusive: i.e. in order to respect local sensibilities and needs, these projects have to engage all of the parties and territories involved. This is not to pander to the ‘nimby’ (not in my backyard, you can build, yes, but not on my doorstep) syndrome, but to plan for the benefit of the territory rather than working against it and avoid riding with development projects ordered from ‘on high’, without any consideration for specific local conditions. Social sustainability must walk hand-in-hand with environmental and economic sustainability, which means it has to stem from an articulated listening process. An infrastructure project is not just a series of guidelines interspersed with a list of financial costs that create opportunities, it is also an intervention that will change the lives of people and communities, and it can only be sustainable when it starts from the community itself. 

Economic & institutional effectiveness

The economic sustainability of infrastructure is based on one key word: transparency. A new project has to be able to sustain itself within the economic context in which it is created. Whether this involves loans, investments, donations or subsidies from within or outside the market economy, an infrastructure has to have the legs to be completed and it needs to be able to stand on its own two feet in the future, otherwise it becomes a debt that is passed down to future generations. According to the WEF, the key to planning in an economically sustainable way is the transparency of the economic evaluations; the decisions on the relationships between the costs and benefits, and compliance with regulations and policies. Placing the parties involved in a condition to evaluate the costs of a project in a clear and transparent manner helps guarantee clean and sustainable accounts.

Future proofing

Every infrastructure has a life-cycle that not only involves planning, construction and usage, but also maintenance and discontinuation. Building in a sustainable manner means accepting responsibility for every phase of this cycle, even those in the long-term. In short, to use the World Economic Forum’s own language, an infrastructure is only sustainable when it is also future-proof. This can be achieved by guaranteeing an enduring maintenance of the project, while generating the least waste possible; factoring in aging by envisaging how the project can eventually be disposed of and replaced; evaluating both the technological possibilities and potential upheavals and anticipating future innovations of the business model.

Critical mass potential

This final consideration can be summarised in the concept of strategic planning. It is the path for reaching the real objectives of an infrastructure: its transformational ability. A railway line, a viaduct, a broadband connection or a wind farm, are not only valuable for what they enable us to do or the energy they produce, but also for the type of society and future they allow us to create. Infrastructure should bever be conceived in isolation or separately from the more general context: they need to be financially scaleable and technologically replicable, and they need to enter into dialogue with the constantly evolving needs of the community and country as a whole. Essentially, they must be part of a bigger plan, the piece of a map that points the way not only to the future we desire for ourselves but also the generations to come. 

Ferdinando Cotugno - He is a reporter born in Naples. Now he lives in Milan and deals with sustainability, environment, and the climate crisis. He writes for Vanity Fair, GQ, Linkiesta, Rivista Studio, Undici and the newspaper Domani, for which he also edited the Areale newsletter. In 2020 he published for Mondadori Italian Wood, a journey to discover the Italian woods, and leads the podcast Ecotoni with Luigi Torreggiani.

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