“One of the fundamental shifts is to contemplate failure”

Jo da Silva, Acting Director of the Resilience Shift, was interviewed along with other experts for an essay written by the Economist Intelligence Unit and supported by UNOPS.

“The need to build resilient and sustainable infrastructure is urgent. Climate change is already disrupting life on the planet, something that is unlikely to change even if the world manages to achieve its climate goals. In the face of increasing risks to communities and their environments, resilient infrastructure will play a key role in shoring up energy and water systems and ensuring that communities can survive shocks and recover from them more quickly. In doing so, infrastructure is not just a means of delivering services; it is a critical enabler and guardian of sustainable development.”

This is the conclusion of a new essay written by the Economist Intelligence Unit and supported by UNOPS, the UN organisation with a core mandate for infrastructure. Jo da Silva, Acting Director of the Resilience Shift, and founder and Director, International Development, Arup, was one of the interviewees for The critical role of infrastructure for the Sustainable Development Goals.

The essay uses three pillars – the economy, the environment, and wider society – as well as the overarching theme of resilience through which to assess the role of infrastructure in meeting global social and environmental goals.

The New Climate Economy’s Sustainable Infrastructure Imperative 2016 sees investing in sustainable infrastructure as “key to tackling the three central challenges facing the global community: reigniting growth, delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and reducing climate risk in line with the Paris Agreement.” Infrastructure is responsible for more than 60% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions according to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 report ‘Could infrastructure investment help tackle climate change?’

But what do we mean by ‘sustainable infrastructure? In this essay, the authors note that “sustainable infrastructure [therefore] needs to be planned, designed, delivered, managed and decommissioned to minimise its negative impacts and maximise its positive impacts.”  “Infrastructure assets—throughout their entire lifecycle—should have positive impacts on the economy, society and the environment.”

Another UNOPS report ‘Infrastructure Underpinning Sustainable Development’ argues that infrastructure underpins most of the SDGs. Goal 9 specifically refers to the need for resilient infrastructure as a prerequisite for economic activity, but it’s equally important that the infrastructure that provides us with water, energy, food and medicine is resilient.

Jo stresses that we need infrastructure that is sustainable and resilient. We need to think about what happens if our critical infrastructure fails. What is the impact on public safety?  “When you look at the definition of critical infrastructure, it is critical if, when it fails, it has a severe detrimental effect on human wellbeing and economic development”.

“Given the complexity of modern infrastructure and the pressures on infrastructure systems due to increasing demand, ageing and climate change, failure is a possibility,” she says. “So, infrastructure has to be resilient or it’s going to have a severe effect on society.”

The Resilience Shift exists to raise awareness of the need for infrastructure to be resilient and develop new approaches that will accelerate a shift in infrastructure thinking and practice to make the world safer. Together we must ensure that the critical infrastructure delivering water, energy, transport and communications we rely upon across the world is prepared for the unexpected, and able to withstand, recover and adapt to accumulating stresses and extreme events.

Jo argues that this “requires a mind shift” and one of the fundamental shifts is to contemplate failure. “Resilience engineering is about ensuring that assets can continue to function even if all sorts of things happen. It’s designing for the expected but being prepared for the unexpected.”

“We need to move away from treating infrastructure projects as individual investments and to view them as part of a system that comprises a portfolio of interlinked assets that provide essential services for society”. “We talk about bridges and roads when we should be talking about mobility, connectivity and ensuring the flow of goods, services and people,”

Recognising the importance of infrastructure and adopting a systems approach is key. Over the past decade, we’ve become more aware of how complex and interconnected the world is, how much uncertainty is out there, whether it’s climate change or a global economic downturn, and how we’re all interconnected.”

“We cannot predict the future, but the ability for critical infrastructure to continue to function and provide essential services for society whatever happens is what matters.”

 


As well as Jo da Silva, the following experts were also interviewed:

  • Marianne Fay, chief economist for climate change, World Bank
  • Jim Hall, director and professor of climate and environmental risks, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford
  • Mark Harvey, head of profession (infrastructure), UK Department for International Development
  • Morgan Landy, senior director of global infrastructure and natural resources, International Finance Corporation
  • Virginie Marchal, senior policy analyst, Environment Directorate, OECD
  • Graham Watkins, principal environmental specialist, Inter-American Development Bank

The publication was written by Sarah Murray and edited by Martin Koehring of The Economist Intelligence Unit. With thanks to them, and to Nicholas O’Regan, Steven Crosskey, and Geoffrey Morgan at UNOPs.

Download the essay here: The critical role of infrastructure for the Sustainable Development Goals

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