The big picture: upcoming Australian Infrastructure Plan, infrastructure and meeting future challenges

Publication Date
06 May 2021

Opening remarks

Thank you Adam for that introduction, and to WSAA for inviting me to take part in Ozwater 2021.

I begin by acknowledging the Kaurna people, the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today, and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

I am really pleased to be able to join you here in Adelaide, and to begin today’s session on resilience – and the actions we need to take today to ensure our infrastructure can meet future challenges. The resilience of our infrastructure is a key focus for Infrastructure Australia, and a critical consideration in the advice we provide on opportunities for investment and reform.

Of course, in recent years, the resilience of our infrastructure assets has been tested on many fronts. Australians have experienced unprecedented extreme events which have emphasised the importance of our ability to handle shocks and stresses. The devastating bushfires of late 2019, for example, damaged energy grids, which in turn disabled telecommunications infrastructure and water treatment facilities. Damaged transport and telecommunications infrastructure hindered emergency services coordination.

Following this, the COVID-19 pandemic challenged the health care system and the economy at large. As people shifted to living and working from home there was a surge in cyber security threats and telecommunications infrastructure became more critical.  Going forward, increasing frequency and severity of shocks and stresses – in part due to the effects of climate change – will continue to test our infrastructure.  

IA work program

Of course –  compounding challenges of unprecedented infrastructure demand, severe drought and other environmental changes have called for a particular focus on forward thinking resilience strategies particularly within the water sector. 

Reflecting this, I have been very pleased that Infrastructure Australia has been able to increase the number of water proposals on the Infrastructure Priority List. Maintaining the Priority List is one of our primary responsibilities as the nation’s independent infrastructure advisor. Informed by our own independent research, as well as extensive collaboration with government, industry and the community –

It is designed to direct Australia’s Governments to the investment-ready proposals that will deliver world-class infrastructure services to all Australians.

Some of the you may be aware that the need to address challenges around strategic planning for water capture, use and management was a key theme of this year’s Priority List which we published in February.

The 2021 edition included new proposals to:

  • Support water security in Perth and Greater Sydney and
  • Secure and utilise productive water via proposals for the Bowen Basin, South East Melbourne and the Barossa Valley.  

This was in addition to existing proposals on the Priority List – such as development of a national water strategy and investment in Town and City Water Supply to improve urban water security.

In addition to potential investment or build solutions – reform opportunities to improve the resilience of our infrastructure are particularly front of mind for us at the moment, as we finalise the next Australian Infrastructure Plan.

Due for release mid-year, the 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan will detail pragmatic reforms to deliver improved services and sustainable infrastructure for all Australians.

Our vision for the 2021 Plan focuses on resilience and adaptability and how the infrastructure sector can best support the national recovery from the pandemic.

Resilience planning is also a critical part of our Assessment Framework, which guides the development of business cases for major infrastructure investment.

Our Assessment Framework has undergone a significant refresh over the past year, informed by an extensive program of stakeholder engagement.

We are excited to be publishing the new Assessment Framework in June, particularly because it will include specific advice on resilience considerations in major infrastructure investment, including:

  • Physical climate risks
  • Risks associated with the transition to a low carbon economy
  • Community resilience to a broad range of shocks and stresses (in addition to climate shocks)
  • Broader behaviour, technology or economic changes.

To set the scene for these forthcoming publications and today’s discussion – my presentation will highlight some key principles for planning and delivering resilient infrastructure for an uncertain future – and how these principles can be embraced and embedded by the water sector.

Infrastructure for resilience

With increasing uncertainty and an evolving risk landscape, the way infrastructure is planned, built and operated will need to change. This means shifting from risk to resilience planning.

While traditional risk planning focuses on avoiding threats, resilience embraces these threats and acknowledges that they are unavoidable – Shifting the focus to absorbing, managing and recovering from disruption.

Of course, the infrastructure planning phase offers the most significant opportunity to plan for and achieve resilience.

The decisions made at this stage establish the trajectory for the rest of the infrastructure lifecycle.

It is the stage when important decisions like location, design and management of asset interdependencies are made, beyond the resilience of the infrastructure asset itself. It is also when shared responsibility for outcomes can be built between government and the community.

Importantly, too – the planning phase is where whole-of-system and whole-of-place outcomes can be assessed, and where build and non-build options can be considered equally, to find the most beneficial solution.

Ensuring that resilience is considered at these early stages will improve project outcomes.

Alongside embedding resilience considerations at the early planning stage, we have identified 7 key factors that should be considered in project development to achieve resilient outcomes.

  1. Resourcefulness – That is the ability of operators, users and infrastructure itself to respond to and manage a shock event in a timely manner. This also extends to the ability to use resources in alternative ways to respond to shocks and manage stresses.
  2. Robustness – Which refers to the ability to withstand disasters and future changes in climate without significant damage or disruption.
  3. Redundancy – Which is maintaining operations without significant deterioration in quality or value through additional capacity, flexible systems or substitution
  4. Recovery – So, responding to and mitigating the consequences of system failures. 
  5. Adaptability – The ability to continually assess, build knowledge, learn and improve, to inform future decisions. For example, introducing new tools, procedures and systems to improve the other qualities ahead of future shocks.
  6. Integration – This refers to the extent to which resilience is embedded in all decision-making, across systems, sectors, activities and risks.
  7. And finally, inclusivity – Which is the ability to involve all citizens and stakeholders to reflect diversity of those using or in proximity to the infrastructure.

Transparency and coordination builds trust in decisions

Building resilience also requires place-based collaboration between infrastructure asset owners and operators, the community, and the Australian, state, territory and local governments.

  • In an environment of rapid change, uncertainty and risk, it is critical we embed new participatory engagement practices
  • Planning for, and adapting to our future climate requires cross-societal and cross-sectoral effort, with coordinated buy-in and action needed across government, industry and the community

Inclusive decision-making harnesses the knowledge communities have of their local places, and the services they need in order to live productive, healthy lives.

Digital technology provides an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of community needs and aspirations, and can provide a stronger evidence base to inform decision-making, project design and delivery.

Increasing the transparency around how infrastructure decisions are made will inform communities, build trust and create the opportunity for feedback to be provided at a time, and in a way that can be most useful.

Long term, coordinated planning processes that connect sectors, governments, businesses and communities (such as corridor protection) will ensure infrastructure works in the best interests of users and taxpayers.

We also recognise the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders being heard through infrastructure development

In preparing for the future of our infrastructure, it’s important that we learn from Indigenous peoples' unique history of land management and settlement, art, culture and society that began over 60,000 years ago.

What does this mean for water?

I want to turn now to how these principles can be embraced by the water sector to ensure we all benefit from reliable, resilient infrastructure that meet our changing expectations.

As I mentioned earlier, Australia’s water sector is under increasing pressure from climate change, weather extremes, population growth, and ageing infrastructure.

These challenges are vast, and our actions towards resilience must come in many forms if we are to maintain and improve our quality of life for generations to come. The forthcoming Australian Infrastructure Plan will argue that the key steps to a resilient water sector are:

  • Adopting focussed approaches towards agreed goals
  • Putting the right infrastructure in place and
  • Encouraging greater community participation.

This includes prioritising sophisticated urban water management to improve our resilience to extreme events such as heatwaves, droughts, and flooding. We are also advocating for an approach to water infrastructure and management that is collaborative, fit for purpose, fit for place and fit for people. Advancing whole of life asset management will be critical for long-term reliability to meet future needs and expectations. Another important focus is encouraging and supporting greater involvement from the community in how our water resources are used and valued. Key to this is giving the community a greater sense of ownership and connection to the water we all rely on. 

Concluding remarks

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak here today. As I mentioned earlier, Infrastructure Australia is focused on supporting government and industry in delivering resilient infrastructure – through both our reform and investment advice. Because without changes to how we plan infrastructure to better consider resilience, the benefits from existing and future investments will diminish in the face of increasing shocks and stresses.

Many of you in the room here today have been incredibly engaged with us as we have embarked on this journey – providing critical input and feedback to shape our:

  • New Assessment Framework,
  • Mid-year update to the Infrastructure Priority List and
  • 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan.

We are excited to share this work with you in coming months, and continue the very important conversation about improving the resilience and adaptability of our infrastructure. Thank you.