On sustainable infrastructure

The first time I came across the topic, I was part of a team developing a sustainability framework for a mega transport project in the UAE.  While there were a number emerging local guidelines relating to sustainable buildings and neighbourhoods, there was a void when it came to local guidance on sustainability for infrastructure projects.  Nevertheless, the client had the foresight of introducing the requirement for a comprehensive sustainability framework from the early planning stages. I love a challenge and this was one I learnt a great deal from and thoroughly enjoyed.

Having gone through that project and a few more since then, below are some thoughts on ‘must-haves’ for sustainability frameworks related to infrastructure planning.  I have focused on areas that are of particular relevance to major infrastructure projects, and thus may be overlooked by professionals coming from other backgrounds.  However, that is not to say that the list is exhaustive or that other sustainability topics (e.g. energy, water, waste, materials) are not applicable to the infrastructure scope and scale.

Climate Change Adaptation

Unlike buildings, infrastructure projects are planned to have lifetimes of 50+ years (often 100+ years). Given that time frame, climate change adaptation is a topic which cannot be ignored, even from a pure risk management perspective.

The Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA) recognised this and took the bold step of including a credit on climate change adaptation in their IS rating tool released in 2012.

For the Middle East, and particularly the Gulf region, sea level rise, temperature rise, and drought-related water shortages are all risk-drivers to be considered carefully.  Once project-specific climate change risks have been identified, they can be addressed through introducing adaptation measures in the design, construction, and operational stages.  As usual, the key is starting early and planning for change from the outset.

Community impact

Due to their scale, infrastructure projects can be significantly disruptive to their surroundings, during both the construction and operational stages.  It is therefore essential to plan the project on the basis of avoiding and mitigating negative impacts on aspects such as the acoustic and visual environment, traffic, and connectivity.

It is critical to have a strict internal mechanism for checking compliance against sustainability goals and objectives, throughout the project lifetime.  For community impact, this can be undertaken through gathering live feedback from the neighbouring areas and taking action to address any issues which arise.  An environmental assessment at the planning stage can only go so far in predicting impacts, a reality check during construction and operation is necessary.

The CEEQUAL rating scheme includes a whole section focusing on People and Communities, providing useful guidance on aspects to be considered.

Road AD

Articulating the wider benefits

Major infrastructure projects are generally built to fulfil a social purpose, be it providing access to water and electricity or facilitating efficient movement of people and goods.  As such, infrastructure projects will likely have wide socio-economic benefits, many of which could be difficult to capture in a traditional cost-benefit analysis.

Nevertheless, it is important to at least identify these wider benefits, since they will be what justify the project when budgets are scrutinised, as they inevitably will be.

Social Return on Investment (SROI) is a methodology that has gained much attention over the past few years, and has helped organisations and projects assess value in its broadest sense.

Whether your infrastructure project is providing access to employment opportunities, improving health, saving time, reducing pollution, or promoting safety, these are all huge positive impacts that need to be clearly captured and then quantified if possible.

Final thoughts

Just because there does not yet exist a ‘ready-to-use’ infrastructure rating scheme for the Middle East does not mean we can afford to ignore sustainability on infrastructure projects.  I am aware of a few rating schemes being developed, and until they are released there is a growing body of international guidance and best practice from which to draw.

Major infrastructure projects cost a few orders of magnitude more than a typical building, and are built to last twice as long at least.  As such, it seems absurd not to invest some time and effort early on developing meaningful sustainability targets and embedding them into the project.  The returns are definitely worth it.

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