The power of people-first infrastructure

Truly sustainable infrastructure must be about more than wind turbines and solar panels, it must be designed with the people who live in it firmly in mind

Gary Clark is on a mission. With the UK facing an even greater economic recovery than after the Second World War, this expert government adviser believes infrastructure should take centre stage in the campaign to “build back better”. 

Picture the scene. Residential and commercial buildings, retrofitted to be super energy efficient. Cities crisscrossed by pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares. Roads free of polluting traffic. Urban spaces dotted with new parks and public gardens.

“We must grasp this opportunity of great change and renewal to create a truly sustainable future. The next ten years are critical,” says Clark, a science and technology specialist at global design and architecture firm HOK.

Coronavirus has sparked many utopian visions for a post-pandemic reboot. So, is Clark’s vision just pie-in-the-sky optimism or could our towns and cities really be on the verge of a major sustainability makeover?

Understanding the ‘why’ and ‘who’ of infrastructure

Discussions at the very highest levels of policymaking suggest such ideas may not be as far-fetched as they may seem. Several years ago, the Economic Commission for Europe, a little-known agency of the United Nations, put forward the notion of a “people-first” approach to public-private projects.

Given its dependency on such projects, the infrastructure sector has proved attentive. Proof came this summer with the publication of a white paper on the future of infrastructure by a working group of the World Economic Forum (WEF).

The report interprets the idea of people-first in infrastructure projects through six key principles; environmental resilience, benefit-sharing, social acceptability, economic and institutional effectiveness, future-proofing and potential for reaching critical mass.

WEF project leader Joseph Losavio sums up the essence of the list as developing infrastructure in a way that “puts the focus on outcomes in people’s lives”. This socially-oriented approach contrasts with the industry’s habitual prioritisation with the physical aspects of infrastructure.

Another way of looking at it is to think less about the “what” and “how” of infrastructure, Lasavio suggests, and more about the “why’ – climate security, nature conservation, human wellbeing, and so forth – and the “who”– people, and even planet. 

To prove the idea’s viability, WEF provides various existing case studies. One concerns a $1.51-billion project to build four city hospitals in Turkey. The facilities, all of which were delivered on budget and ahead of time, are credited with making up-to-the-minute health technologies available to the wider Turkish public. They are also fitted with a host of green features, including rooftop solar and seismic isolation technology.

Another illustrative example is a public-private partnership in India that will see 250 million smart electricity meters installed across the country over the coming years. Among the project’s defining attributes is its inclusion of end-users in the rollout plan and future pricing structures.

People-first infrastructure is about widening horizons

At its core, people-first infrastructure is as much about shifting perspective and “widening one’s horizon” as it is about specific practices and protocols, says Jean-Patrick Marquet, former managing director for infrastructure at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and an adviser to WEF.

“It’s not only achieving value for money, but also aiming at value for people and value for the planet,” he says.

Encouraging as these early signs are, the concept of people-first infrastructure remains in its early days. For the sector’s big players to start thinking seriously about the “why” and “who” of large-scale projects, it will take a strong signal from policymakers.

A few promising signs exist. HOK’s Clark points to the UK government’s latest National Infrastructure Strategy. Unveiled last month, the £100-billion plan prioritises a raft of sustainability actions, from investing in renewable energy and flood defences through to installing electric vehicle charging points and cycle lanes.

It’s not only achieving value for money, but also aiming at value for people and value for the planet

Announcing the new strategy, chancellor Rishi Sunak made explicit the link to the everyday lives new infrastructure touches, arguing that the barometer of economic success for many is “the change they see and the pride they feel in the places they call home”.

The principles of people-first are also evident in the infrastructure elements of the European Commission’s €1.8-billion COVID-19 recovery deal. Nearly one third (30%) of this colossal stimulus package is destined to combat climate change, with specific attention also given to biodiversity protection and gender equality.

Money and mindset are key

The central role of infrastructure, especially green infrastructure, in many government recovery packages goes some way to addressing the other big challenge facing this burgeoning agenda, namely finance.

To achieve genuine scale, the private sector also needs to reach into its pockets. The evidence here is less encouraging, although some positive early signs do exist, says Amy Clarke, chief impact officer at the socially responsible wealth manager Tribe Impact Capital.

“Investors who are familiar with the intersectional overlap between the UN Sustainable Development Goals are usually keen to see people-centred design factors as part of an approach to infrastructure,” she says.

By way of example, she points to investor concerns about the impacts on employment of a transition to low-carbon infrastructure. According to the London School of Economics, 30 per cent of the 2.4 million UK workers employed in construction are in danger of losing their jobs if they fail to reskill.

To avoid this and other similar social fallouts, 161 investment firms representing $10.2 trillion in assets under management have publicly pledged to use their financial muscle to support a so-called “just transition”.

Arguably, however, the biggest challenge ahead lies in changing the prevailing mindset of infrastructure firms. For one, it involves prioritising the “priorities of life” over the “priorities of money”, says Richard Threlfall, global head of infrastructure at KPMG and a member of WEF’s working group.

Harder still could be the industry’s perceived latent elitism. As opposed to infrastructure firms presuming what people need, a people-first approach would involve talking to communities first. That way, says Threlfall, they can find out “what people really want”.