David Singleton

According to Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia chairman David Singleton many big budget infrastructure projects might be reluctant to commit to a sustainability rating. However, negotiating a balance between financial sustainability and broader environmental sustainability is crucial to the viability of companies, projects and cities, he says.

Mr Singleton convened and chaired the recent Business Enterprise Sustainability Forum at the recent Engineers Australia Convention, which covered topics including financing development, project sustainability, how businesses can implement viable sustainability plans, placemaking and the future of city design, urban redevelopment, managing the challenge of diminishing natural resources, smart cities and infrastructure, and planning for “investor ready” cities.

He said one of his aims was to shift the climate change debate.

“While the debate has centred around politics and [disputing] climate change science, the discussion needs to go beyond that and include enterprise sustainability,” Mr Singleton said.

“Very quickly we have become involved in this climate change discussion which has grown increasingly polarised, and sustainability has become mixed up with all of that.

“There are many other aspects to operating in our world and ensuring that we are going to be around in 20, 30, or 40 years time that go to the heart of how businesses operate.”

He said discussions around infrastructure needed to be about more than roads. It needed to cover essentials like potable water supply systems, power, hospitals, levee banks, footpaths, sewerage treatment, public transport and schools.

“Infrastructure is the foundation for the city, the foundation for urban development and human existence,” he said.

“It’s not just the chunky projects; it’s also drainage systems in local towns – it’s everything upon which we build our society.”

ISCA is currently working with the Institute of Public Works Engineers to develop an element of the rating process that can be used for local government-scale works such as new streets or drainage systems by aggregating individual projects. This approach and these types of projects, Mr Singleton said, was where the organisation saw a clear cross-over between sustainability and infrastructure.

“It is fair to say, in terms of ISCA, our focus has been on rating projects, and basically taking what we can get [in terms of applicants]. We have been chasing the larger projects, and we have one or two on the books, but most of them are not so much the big ribbon-cutting-worthy projects,” he said.

Among the first projects to achieve an ISCA rating was a wastewater treatment plant project by Tenix in the Whitsundays region, the Gold Coast Light Rail Stage 1, awarded an Excellent As Built rating, the highest achievement level to date, and the Western Australian City East Alliance project by the MRWA which gained an “As Built” rating.

Currently 27 projects, with a total capital value of $36 billion are registered for rating. These include the North West Rail Link, Wynyard Walk , Elizabeth Quay in Perth, Yarra Park water recycling facility in Victoria and the ACT’s Capital Metro light rail.

Another eight certified ratings are expected to be awarded by mid 2015.

“In the energy sector of infrastructure some of the projects are easier to categorise and understand what a sustainable X looks like and what an unsustainable X lacks,” he said.

The forum had city design as a major focus, and Mr Singleton said there was a need to embed sustainability in the approach to planning, design and delivery of services and other elements of large-scale urban projects.

“We would argue that once you start talking about a campus or a precinct, the infrastructure that supports it needs to be delivered in a sustainable fashion,” he said.

ISCA has had some discussions with the Green Building Council of Australia about the Green Star – Communities tool and the degree to which it sets objectives for sustainability in terms of the infrastructure that supports it.

“In a couple of places, we have been successful in encouraging project proponents to explore the ISCA approach,” he said.

An area of major opportunity was the water sector.

“We have really become very advanced in thinking in this space. Arup did some work with Sydney Water that was very elegant and explanatory. It makes the very clear case we can do so much better with how we manage water assets. Melbourne Water has made the most progress in this space,” he said.

The nexus between agriculture and water is an area where he believes we can achieve far more. This also means Australians need to “re-understand and rediscover our relationship and partnership with the land, and its future ability to support us and generate exports”.

The north of the country, he said, was particularly suitable for exploring the opportunities of sustainable agriculture.

Light rail was another area he said deserved greater focus. This is of particular relevance to the property sector as light rail is a key element of placemaking that “makes a statement about stability” as a long-term and permanent form of public transport, enabling confidence for developers within its transport corridor.

His motivation for convening the forum was to expand the discussion of sustainability beyond the environmental aspects to include looking at what a business needs to be and do in order to survive and prosper.

“We settled on three or four topics to be used as a mechanism to have the conversation where people can realise sustainability is beyond ISCA and Green Star ratings – it is about what makes a business tick or a society tick. It is about what matters in our world today and what will matter in the next 10 or 20 years,” Mr Singleton said.

There are a proportion of people thinking along the “business as usual” approach, but speakers such as Flinders University economics professor Professor Sue Richardson and Engineers Australia president Professor David Hood challenge that, he said.

The deeper business case for sustainability was raised in a session on how to attract investors for projects.

“There is still an argument to be put [on that] and not enough people convinced of it in this country,” Mr Singleton said. “There are a small number that genuinely believe in sustainability, and a small number that believe it is good for their branding.” However, a the majority of companies had a long way to go, he said.