Our vision splendid: Why building big things gets more complicated by the day

Infrastructure Australia’s just published 2021 Australian National Infrastructure Plan comes in at 648 pages and highlights just how much more challenging it is to build major projects the right way these days, writes Robert MacDonald.

Sep 06, 2021, updated Sep 06, 2021
The Brisbane Live proposal for Roma Street will be one of a handful of major projects on the drawing board. (File image).

The Brisbane Live proposal for Roma Street will be one of a handful of major projects on the drawing board. (File image).

It’s a lot more complicated to build big things these days.

The national infrastructure plans published every few years by the Federal Government’s Infrastructure Australia (IA), tell the story.

IA released the first of them in 2008 – the year it was created as “an independent statutory body with a mandate to prioritise and progress nationally significant infrastructure”. It ran to 83 pages.

Five years later, it had grown to 136 pages.

The next plan, released in 2016, was 198 pages.

IA released its 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan last week. The length? 648 pages.

The inaugural 2008 report was all about how to ensure “rigorous and robust economic analysis prior togovernment decision-making”.

The big problem, as IA saw it at the time, was that “infrastructure decision making in Australia has been criticised on the basis that projects are considered in isolation, lack coordination and are subject to short-term horizons.”

And so its focus was on how to better coordinate and assess the benefit of big nation-building infrastructure projects.

The 2021 report moves far beyond this more traditional cost-benefit approach.

It is very much a product of our increasingly inclusive times.

The 2008 report makes only passing reference to the need for a “triple, bottom line approach” to balance the “economic, environmental and social benefits, cost and outcomes” of major infrastructure decisions.

The 2021 publication, titled “Reforms to meet Australia’s future infrastructure needs”, makes consulting and collaborating the centrepieces of its proposals.

It uses the word “community” 48 times in the executive summary alone, as in, “each recommended reform prioritises community and user outcomes, balanced against costs and risks in implementation”.

“Collaborate”, “collaborative” and “collaborating” appear 23 times.

And in a sign of just how much things really have changed in just 12 years, IA’s latest report includes the following statement:

“In preparing for the future of our infrastructure, we acknowledge the importance of looking beyond the immediate past to learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s unique history of land management and settlement, art, culture and society that began over 65,000 years ago.”

IA chair, Julieanne Alroe describes the latest document as a “a pragmatic, community-centred plan for reform”.

“Historically, infrastructure planning has sought to project future conditions as an extension of today, then provided infrastructure to meet anticipated demand,” she writes in the chair’s foreword.

“In 2021 and beyond, the approach must be more robust.

“Rather than simply projecting forward the status quo, infrastructure planning must set an ambitious vision for the country.

“It should anticipate and adapt to change, manage risk and deliver infrastructure that works towards — rather than against — the current and future needs of the community.”

The report makes 28 recommendations. Many of them seem almost too obvious to require stating at all.

For instance, IA highlights the need to “build community trust in infrastructure decision-making and institutions by ensuring infrastructure decisions are transparent and reflect place-based community needs and preferences”.

Obvious or not, it’s probably a good thing the country’s infrastructure czars are at least formally recognising the need to keep us informed and involved in the big decisions.

As another sign of the changing times, IA has moved from triple- to quadruple-bottom line evaluation of its proposed reforms “to ensure they balance social, economic, environmental and governance outcomes”.

The eternal challenge, of course, is turning these high-minded ideals into real outcomes.

The Infrastructure Association of Queensland will be grappling with just such challenges at its annual convention in Brisbane on Wednesday and Thursday this week.

Its theme is “Through infrastructure we can build a better future together”.

Topics range from “What is a Smart City really, where will they be found and can they deliver on all the promises?” to “First Nations best for country design in infrastructure”.

Long gone, it seems, is the theory of “build it and they will come” when it comes to big infrastructure projects

Today,  you have to bring everyone along on what we might as well call “the infrastructure journey”.

And that can’t be a bad thing, as long as it actually happens.










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