Our nation is in transition. Australia’s future competitiveness on an increasingly global stage rests in our ability to move from a resource-based economy to a high-tech, knowledge-based economy.

Our need for high-level skills will only increase as productivity and innovation become the new norm.

Add to this our country’s unique challenge of needing to support unprecedented population growth with over eight million people expected to be living in Sydney and Melbourne by 2050.

The demand for infrastructure that supports safe and prosperous communities is growing, and increasing in complexity.

We need to be planning for this new world in a way that transcends short-term political agendas. Building more infrastructure is part of the answer, but using what we have in smarter ways is crucial.

The community is looking for the people with integrity to imagine, create and deliver tools, skills, networks, structures and new ways of thinking.

Stephen Durkin

Engineers and the mindset they bring are key to meeting these infrastructure demands. Engineers are held in high regard as creative, innovative, highly skilled and inspiring leaders who have a desire to help others. They are one of the five most trusted professions in Australia, alongside nurses, pharmacists, doctors and teachers, according to the Roy Morgan Image of Professions Survey 2015.

For decades, Engineers Australia has been calling on governments to better plan, deliver and maintain infrastructure.

The Australian Infrastructure Plan released by independent statutory body Infrastructure Australia earlier this year represented a big step forward in depoliticising infrastructure, and making a shift towards better decisions and better delivery.

It echoed our consistent advocacy for policy and delivery that is coordinated across the state and federal level and is separated from the political pressures of the electoral cycle.

We believe that communities want to see an investment in infrastructure that is well-planned and delivers the right outcomes for the right price.

What isn’t planned is by definition ad hoc and runs the risk of not being fit for purpose.

The Grattan Institute report, Roads to riches: better transport spending, represents another shift in momentum towards coordinated infrastructure planning.

The engineering profession is looking for policy settings that ensure we have the right people with the right skills, understanding and experience to properly plan and deliver projects.

A long-term view on education and skills development that recognises the fundamental role of human capital in supporting infrastructure, innovation and unlocking prosperity is also crucial.

The benefits of better planning accrue to us all at the community level, with much-needed skills and capabilities finding support amid the ebbs and flows of work that drive people across states and territories, and abroad, in search of meaningful work.

People need certainty to support sensible decision making, about their own lives and when devising projects – large and small.

The challenge of intermittency

A concept, and challenge, that has emerged in recent debate is that of intermittency.

Intermittency, or lumpy work flow, causes difficulties in retaining skilled and competent work forces at all levels – from professional engineers to tradespeople.

Intermittency means that when infrastructure projects end, the workforce is dispersed across alternative employment options instead of building on their experience in new projects.

Subsequent efforts to reassemble workforces as new projects begin face additional recruitment costs and often experience shortages of staff with significant industry experience.

Intermittency also reduces employer incentives to invest in professional development and training beyond immediate requirements.

Modern, effective infrastructure is part of a much bigger narrative and is an investment in Australia’s future. It is a key enabler of productivity growth, which in turn has been the driver of improved living standards. The nation’s prosperity depends on this relationship continuing.

Engineers design, build, operate, maintain and use infrastructure. Their specialised skills and engagement in every sector of the economy give them a particular insight about the capacity, adequacy and innovative potential of infrastructure.

Engineers and sustainability

Another strong position taken by Engineers Australia is to support the role of our profession as leaders in driving change towards a sustainable world.

The footprint that we leave for our children touches all issues of economic and social equity.

Engineers are committed to sustainability principles as a key component of ethical behaviour and a core component of everyday life, and effective infrastructure is an important vehicle to achieve this.

Major projects can all too easily be dismissed as “pork-barrelling” or “policy candy”.

And when thinking is wedded to concept of high profile projects then what’s lost in that process is perspective. That’s why you need engineers, who bring an appreciation that it’s not always just about building something, it’s about optimising what you’ve got and servicing it properly.

If we plan properly for the long term then we won’t be continually reacting to the problems and falling into the “just in time” trap where solutions run the risk of only being short-term fixes.

Long-term projects take courage. We need to be brave enough to move from the historically reactive approach to infrastructure so that we can better utilise what we have and imagine how to support a more innovative and prosperous country.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge

When the steel cantilever Sydney Harbour Bridge was proposed by John Bradfield, an engineer with the NSW Public Works Department, there were only a handful of driver licences held by people on the north shore. The population subsequently spread north, west and south and the car became the major mode for travelling to and from work in Sydney.

It takes vision and foresight for people to plan and build the infrastructure that serves communities for decades. This is where engineers excel.

Similarly in Melbourne, when the Flinders Street railway station opened more than 100 years ago, the design team had the courage to take a long-term perspective and create the train network that continues to underpin prosperity across the city. They weren’t thinking about where the votes were. They were trying to do the right thing by the community at large – and future communities. They also understood the need to service and protect assets.

Engineers can help governments deliver better outcomes

Governments can do a better job of shaping community expectations and engineers can help politicians gain the necessary level of appreciation for a smarter way of thinking.

Shifting to a longer-term mindset, adopting service standards and channelling smart information about usage all support better directed infrastructure decisions, and spending.

Maximising the benefits of existing infrastructure is key. It’s especially crucial that smart data about existing usage flows through into procurement and management decisions.

The effectiveness of most existing infrastructure can be improved by using lessons learnt from analysis of operational results against service standards by taking advantage of smart ICT. The benefits of this can include better short-term performance, cost savings and extended asset lives.

Australia’s infrastructure development experience is stop-start in nature, and the institutional framework is a key factor.

Issues around infrastructure connectivity and funding are best solved in a comprehensive depoliticised national infrastructure plan in which states, territories and cities all play their part by integrating land use and infrastructure planning.

The use of infrastructure within a total systems approach that takes existing assets and future needs into account, and fits within a broader plan to support skills and population flows, would be a step in the right direction.

Lifting the debate above politics matters.

Stephen Durkin is chief executive of Engineers Australia.

4 replies on “It’s time to get smart about infrastructure”

  1. “Add to this our country’s unique challenge of needing to support unprecedented population growth with over eight million people expected to be living in Sydney and Melbourne by 2050.” It’s about time the media questioned the population growth, and how it’s contributing to our communities and economy? With more than half of this population growth due to immigration, or new settlers, surely what we benefited from in the Post War era, of high immigration, should now be questioned? There needs to be another Productivity Commission in the costs/benefits of unfettered population growth, and who really benefits from overloading our infrastructure!

    1. I always wonder with climate change and the devastating impact it will have on our neighbours exactly what we intend to do about population growth. Please send ideas.

      1. Over a half of our population growth is due to immigration levels, not natural growth. Once the immigration tap is turned down, to zero net levels- or back to 1990s rates- we might be able to actually address the infrastructure challenge! As for climate change, or government is in denial mode, and refusing to fund CSIRO researchers! They are all about profits, unfettered growth, with their heads in the sand.

  2. Modern warfare/invasion is conducted in the boardrooms. Our politicians are not equipped to handle the pressures of leading the country. “We will deal with it when the time arrives” and throw more money to cover up dodgy deals gone awry, and implement “belt tightening policies” are the best they can do.

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