With populations growing, citizen expectations shifting and technology disrupting everything, governments must consider multiple possible futures when planning, delivering and managing Australia’s infrastructure.
When we think of infrastructure, we picture tonnes of concrete or steel, rail lines, roads, power stations or hospitals. We imagine things built to stand the test of time.
However, the infrastructure assets we create are simply enablers to help our communities to survive and thrive. A road is an enabler of the mobility of people and goods, a hospital is an enabler for the provision of health services, and our power stations enable the creation of electricity that is the life blood of our society.
The demands of our society (including population growth, ageing, urbanisation and consumer behaviour), combined with the massive disruptive impacts of technology, mean that the ways we can meet these critical community needs, is significantly changing.
No longer can we assume that the way we have planned, invested and managed infrastructure in the past will meet the demands of the future. No longer can we assume that building more (more roads, more hospitals etc.), is the best way to support the needs of our communities Our uncertain world means that it is vital to continually reassess and rethink our approach.
The future use of our roads provides a useful example of how changes are creating significant uncertainty.
Will the increasing population continue the relentless need for more and wider roads? Or will technological change, such as autonomous vehicles mean that we need fewer vehicles – or at least use our roads much more efficiently?
Either of these future states are possible – but traditional approaches to dealing with one outcome are unlikely to the other – so a much more nuanced way of thinking is necessary.
While the road example shows how uncertainty could see investment put into the least effective solutions, similar issues are facing every aspect of our society, including for example:
Health: Advancement in predictive, and in-home/in-body healthcare may fundamentally change the role of, or way we interact with, general practitioners; the advancement in robotics, automation and telemedicine may materially impact on how we use our hospitals.
Education: Changes in the importance of certain educational topics as the needs in the workforce continue to evolve and a range of current roles become obsolete or of less relevance; the increased ability for digital learning, use of virtual/augmented reality and the likely impacts on our university sector.
Agriculture: The use of technology to monitor, manage and enhance crop outcomes.
Justice and security: The use of facial recognition and digital identities to manage security and authorise access (physical or electronic).
This environment of change and uncertainty presents significant challenges for governments and investors alike. While we have a critical need to invest or build today to meet the current (significant) needs of our communities, we cannot be certain we will receive the benefits over the next (typical investment horizon) 30-50 years.
The road example highlights the significant challenges for:
This increased volatility and uncertainty requires governments and investors alike to look beyond the predictable future and to envisage multiple possible futures – including completely different ways to meet the needs of our communities.
In an environment that is reminiscent of the significant changes that arose from the introduction of the steam engine, electricity, or electronics, we are living in a world where we cannot assume that what we have done in the past will be the best option for the future. While it is impossible to predict which of the changes are real, which will be hype, and the scale of any potential change, the one certainty is that we are all facing significant uncertainty.
With communities crying out for investment to meet their critical current needs, but an uncertain and highly volatile future, this requires governments and investors alike to:
If you’d like to explore these issues further, better understand what the multiple futures might look like and how you can position your organisation for it, please contact Adrian Box.