Infrastructure is linked to each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and influences over 90 percent of the individual targets. Power plants and distribution lines ensure a steady supply of electricity to villages, and water treatment systems have reduced disease and saved millions of hours previously devoted to hauling water.
But if such systems are planned, designed, and executed in ways that destroy biodiversity, lock in fossil fuel consumption, or marginalize certain stakeholders, they can do as much harm as good.
Developing more sustainable infrastructure systems is a prerequisite for changing how our economies and societies function and achieving the SDGs and the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Today, technology has revolutionized the way infrastructure is designed, developed, and delivered. Using the right technology is critical for maximizing the positive impacts of infrastructure developments and minimizing the negative ones.
Smarter tech adoption for smarter infrastructure According to World Bank, electrification in East Asia Pacific has improved in the last 20 years. However, many communities in Southeast Asia still lack access to basic electricity supply. There is also a digital divide between urban and rural populations: 72 percent of metropolitan areas have internet connections compared to only 38 percent in rural areas.
Amid a massive wave of infrastructure expansion to meet the growing demand for these services, it is also important to assess the sustainable service delivery of the existing infrastructure: is it fit for purpose, and can its performance be improved with the application of new technology?
For example, renewable microgrids and storage solutions enable the creation of new types of energy markets that connect small and large producers and consumers of electricity across two-sided distribution networks.
This results in more efficient and resilient energy grids that aid the shift towards cleaner sources of energy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. However, despite the clear economic benefits of many new technologies for infrastructure, widespread adoption and usage often require investments and action by various water utilities and regional or national government entities.
Accelerating technology transfer with international cooperation
International cooperation can accelerate this process through the exchange of tried-and-tested solutions and technical know-how. This enables technological leapfrogging, which bridges the technological gap between developed and developing countries.
With appropriate trials or pilots, both proven and frontier technologies can be transferred between countries to increase social and economic development on a regional scale collectively.
Many cities in Asia are now facing increased municipal solid waste due to rapid urbanization and unsustainable landfills, and companies that have helped design, construct, finance, operate, and maintain waste-to-energy projects in countries like Singapore could help, having gone through the art and science of deploying waste management projects.
With Asian countries having similar climatic conditions, living, and food habits, their waste compositions may be similar. Hence, the waste management experiences of certain countries may provide proof-of-concept and evidence of bankability for various technologies, such as waste-to-energy, to be adapted and adopted.
Investment in technological research and development is key
The expansion of digital infrastructure across the globe shows that it is not always a single piece of frontier technology that brings immediate impact. Instead, the changes are evident in behavior changes resulting from the broad adoption of several technologies in an iterative way. It is essential that companies and governments invest in and support research and development for new technologies, even if their impacts may not be immediately tangible.
Taking reference from Singapore, the small city-state has had to develop innovative solutions to overcome acute resource constraints, such as land scarcity and the lack of natural resources.
Singapore has been investing heavily in research and development in water technology and has built an extensive ecosystem to support this sector. As a result, water companies have been drawn to Singapore to test and develop water technologies, resulting in the continuous innovation and adoption of water solutions to improve many lives.
It is crucial that infrastructure practitioners, like planners, designers, engineers, and constructors, brace for the next paradigm shift by thinking outside the box and applying innovative technologies to deliver infrastructure services efficiently, effectively, and sustainably.
Accelerating our net-zero journey with regional collaboration
Whether new and innovative technologies or tried and true, infrastructure planners should consider how different technological solutions can ensure that infrastructure investments are sustainable, inclusive, and resilient.
To do this, governments, investors, practitioners, and other stakeholders must work together in an integrated way to ensure that all countries can access and adopt the best technologies for developing smarter, more sustainable infrastructure.
Seth Tan is the executive director of Infrastructure Asia. Dechen Tsering, is the director of the Asia and the Pacific office at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).