How can Australia's infrastructure sector ensure that assets are resilient during the infrastructure boom?

By Nick Thomas, Lina Fischer and Jason Hooper
09 Dec 2021
As Australia grapples with the threats of climate change, pandemics and cyber attacks, greater emphasis must be placed on achieving resilience during the planning phase of infrastructure projects, and using the tools which are currently available to deliver resilience in infrastructure.

Australia is in the midst of one of the greatest infrastructure booms in its history, and this reflects a global trend. However, the events of the last three years have highlighted Australia's vulnerability to natural and non-natural threats, including a global pandemic, bushfires, droughts, floods and cyber threats.

Inevitably, these and other threats will continue to occur. To address this, Australia's infrastructure bodies are advocating greater resilience in our infrastructure. Their key messages include that we need more "systems" thinking to deliver resilience for infrastructure, and it is critical that thorough planning occurs to ensure that new infrastructure assets are resilient and support more resilient communities.

Delivering resilience in our infrastructure

On 3 December 2021 we convened a panel of experts to address the importance of infrastructure resilience. Lina Fischer, a partner in our Major Projects and Construction team, moderated a discussion with Romilly Madew AO (CEO of Infrastructure Australia), Rory Butler (Associate Director Sustainability and Resilience, Infrastructure Australia), Simon Draper (CEO of Infrastructure NSW) and Nick Thomas (partner in our Environment and Planning team).

The discussion follows the release, in August 2021, of the joint report from Infrastructure Australia and Infrastructure NSW titled "A Pathway to Infrastructure Resilience". In this article, we have highlighted some key points from the Pathway Report and the discussion.

A Pathway to Infrastructure Resilience

Infrastructure Australia's and Infrastructure NSW's research project reflected contributions from over 600 participants in government, industry, peak bodies, academia and civil society organisations. Its aim was to "build expertise, momentum for change and set a strategic direction for how we plan infrastructure to respond to natural and non-natural threats".

Infrastructure Australia's and Infrastructure NSW's vision is that future Australian communities will "be able to anticipate, resist, absorb, recover, transform and thrive in response to shocks and stresses, to realise positive economic, social and environmental outcomes".

Importantly, the Pathway Report emphasises that achieving resilience is not limited to the resilience of the asset itself, but also the ability of the asset to contribute to the overall resilience of the system in which it is placed. In effect, this approach requires an emphasis not only on the strength of the asset, its network and its sector, but also the place, community, precinct, city or region in which it operates.

Importance of focusing on resilience during the planning phase

Prioritising resilience during the planning phase of an infrastructure asset offers the greatest opportunity to achieve resilience. The planning phase establishes the trajectory for the remaining phases of an infrastructure asset's lifespan and is critical in determining fundamental decisions such as the location, design and management of the asset, its integration in the community which it serves, and interdependencies of the asset with existing or other soon to be constructed assets.

The Pathway Report outlines 10 directions for systemic change in infrastructure planning:

  1. Improving strategic alignment of resilience governance. Systemic change is only possible if there is alignment and coordination across various levels of government, sectors, agencies and jurisdictions. Fragmentation is a serious barrier in achieving resilience.
  2. Managing uncertainty through scenario planning. Consistent, fit for purpose scenario planning would result in more collaborative planning and improved identification of potential impacts on infrastructure assets.
  3. Improving data collection and sharing for informed planning, action and decision-making. Data that is good quality, standardised and accessible can be effective in coordinating responses to and recovery from inevitable crises.
  4. Adopting place-based approaches for resilience. In the planning phase, consideration should be given to the benefits, place-level interdependencies and vulnerabilities of the place in which an infrastructure asset is proposed to be located.
  5. Embedding resilience into land use planning and development decisions. Typically, planning systems across Australia do not typically establish resilience as a key policy objective. Coherent policy is required to achieve resilience land use planning applicable at all levels.
  6. Improving infrastructure investment decision-making. Infrastructure failure and the increased infrastructure pipeline result in a need for better practice in infrastructure investment decision-making. Valuing resilience of assets would enable governments and agencies to better leverage private capital by pursuing good-quality infrastructure investments.
  7. Collecting and sharing information on asset and network vulnerability. Due to the interdependent nature of infrastructure systems, being able to share information on real-time service disruption is essential in improving cross-sectoral planning and collaboration, allowing infrastructure networks to respond in a crisis and identify different service deliveries.
  8. Valuing blue and green infrastructure. The ability to leverage blue and green infrastructure can reduce risk and result in resilience benefits in response to crises.
  9. Building trust with community through more inclusive decision-making. Communities have lived experiences on the impacts that natural and non-natural threats have had on their place, which is critical in ensuring effective decision-making of future infrastructure assets.
  10. Embedding traditional ecological knowledge in decision-making. Ineffective land and resource management has the potential to negatively impact infrastructure assets and communities. The utilisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land management processes can enhance resilience of the Australian environment.

What tools do we have to help deliver resilient infrastructure

The moderated discussion focused on three levels at which infrastructure resilience can be delivered:

1.         Place or systems level

Planning system reforms such as, in NSW:

  • the establishment of the Greater Sydney Commission and the introduction of statutory requirements for strategic land use plans in 2018;
  • the Planning Minister's release of 9 key planning principles (one of which is resilience) earlier this month; and
  • the current process of reforming the State's infrastructure contributions scheme for development projects,

provide a platform for the integration of resilience in strategic planning.

In addition, the collaborative response to COIVID-19 in a rapid review of planning law constraints to allow more effective operation of infrastructure during the pandemic demonstrated that there is capacity to adapt thinking and practices when necessary to improve resilience.

2.         Asset level

Embedding sustainability, and resilience as part of it, are fundamental for resilient assets.  We are seeing this occurring in various ways, such as:

  • adoption, across many infrastructure classes, of sustainability rating schemes such as Infrastructure Sustainability (IS) rating scheme, and Greenstar rating schemes for some social infrastructure, which incorporate categories such as climate change adaptation;
  • more sophistication in incorporating sustainability and resilience in procurement and infrastructure delivery contracts – moving beyond vague references to sustainability plans and "set and forget" requirements, to specifications which deal with specific resilience issues, the inclusion of sustainability in procurement evaluation criteria, and incentive schemes for specified design and environmental outcomes;
  • greater awareness of potential savings in operation and maintenance costs for more resilient assets, and recognition of this project contracts;
  • a more resilience-driven approach to insurance risk, which is affecting availability, terms and premiums;
  • stricter and more focused assessments and approval conditions (eg. in relation to community engagement and social impact, which is being driven by regulators and by proponents seeking a stronger social licence for their projects).

3.         Organisational level

The rise of ESG (environmental, social and governance) concerns means that senior executives and boards are more focused on addressing issues like sustainability and resilience in their policies, their assets and activities.

The environmental, social and governance consequences of public and private sector organisational decisions now have much greater significance, so there's more attention on the basis for those decisions, and factors which are not traditionally financial are becoming much more important (such as climate change mitigation and adaptation (or resilience)).

Interestingly, this can have a hard financial edge to it.  For example, a more resilient asset can have lower operating costs, so there can be a financial incentive for decision-makers to adopt more resilient concepts, designs, construction and operation in their infrastructure assets.

It is clear that resilience is already highly important for infrastructure, and will only become more so.  It is also clear that achieving resilience is a shared responsibility that requires a collaborative effort across government, industry and community.  We already have many of the tools we need to deliver resilient infrastructure – we now need to find out the most effective ways to use them.

Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.