Gazing into the post COVID-19 future of NZ infrastructure

By Jon Grayson – Chief executive, NZ Infrastructure Commission, Te Waihanga,

The average New Zealander rarely gives infrastructure a second thought unless it isn’t working. It’s in times of crisis that we start to value the essentials such as energy, clean water, good telecommunications and transport systems.

Life as we know it in this country is changing rapidly. However, with the challenges ahead there is also opportunity. Now is a good time for us to be in the driver’s seat and making choices about how we want to live in the future – including what we might want from our infrastructure.

The mandate of the Infrastructure Commission, Te Waihanga (Infracom) is to develop a 30-year strategy for infrastructure. Our vision should reflect the outcomes New Zealanders want to achieve.

The COVID-19 crisis will mean considering infrastructure planning differently than anticipated going forward.

In a pre-COVID-19 world, many infrastructure owners made projections about the level of future demand they could expect for their services. There was a tendency to extrapolate current trends rather than reimagine the future. However, basing projections on the past won’t be the right approach now.

Building disruption into our thinking will be more prudent.

Infrastructure is increasingly complex, diverse and interdependent. Before the pandemic emerged, there was increased demand for services due to a growing and aging population. We were on a trajectory for continued migration-driven population increase and growth, especially in our main centres. The status quo saw huge pressures on delivering a built environment to meet those demands.

Outside of the main centres, farming, forestry, fishing and mining still underpin regional economies. Total exports to all countries in the last week of March were up 13.2 percent compared to 2019. Tourism, on the other hand, which accounted for around ten percent of the economy, is not faring so well.

We still need to address decades of underinvestment in infrastructure, especially in local water services, roads and housing.

With finite resources now under even greater pressure, there are further challenges in moving to a sustainable economy that will need to be taken into consideration.

We’re also seeing shifts in demand. For instance, demand for telecommunications infrastructure has surged as it becomes our ‘lifeline’ during lockdown.

New trends post-pandemic could include increased domestic tourism once we are able to travel freely around the country again, increased primary production, city dwellers moving back to the country, and more people working from home with newfound confidence.

Our ‘new normal’ will be shaped by the way we manage to emerge from this crisis, bearing in mind that the pandemic may affect us in waves, rather than enabling an instant return to our everyday lives. We’ll need to apply a different lens to identify what infrastructure is most essential.

One avenue could be to invest more heavily in regional infrastructure to help regional centres become a beacon for future living.

Many lobby groups are also calling more ambitious investment in renewable energy.

Whichever pathway we choose will lead to quite different infrastructure futures.

The construction sector will have an important role to play in kick-starting the New Zealand economy when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. Infracom is working with the Accord Steering Group, supported by a range of people, agencies, organisations and businesses from across government and industry, and the Infrastructure Industry Reference Group to ensure the sector remains viable, and that we can restart works and get them moving as quickly as possible.

This may involve finding ways to remove some of the red tape that the industry currently faces with projects. It’s important that we focus on the projects that take us in the right long-term direction (or do the least harm), rather than what is easiest.

Infracom is at the early stages of developing its long-term strategy, and we want to get it right. We’ll be consulting widely with industry to ensure we capture a diverse range of views.

Infrastructure takes a long time to plan and should last a long time once it’s built. There’s limited flexibility in how infrastructure is used, so the decisions we make need to last the distance.

Now is the time to think about how we want to live in future and to signal this, so good policy decisions around infrastructure can be made.

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