By the time we deliver this project, will it be outdated?
With the accelerating pace of change, future-proofing social infrastructure is an increasingly complex proposition. With such investments ranging anywhere from millions to billions of taxpayers’ money, getting it wrong can be very painful.
The common consensus is that we need flexibility to respond to changing conditions and technological advancements.
However, infrastructure – bricks, concrete, steel and mortar – are inherently inflexible. Moreover, in order to deliver on time and budget, projects need seeking certainty.
So how do governments future-proof infrastructure projects that can take years or even decades to deliver? There are a number of options:
Build extra capacity – a more obvious example where you build in extra ‘space’ of any kind; such as reserving corridors for future roads or trains, or adding extra lanes to a road when building it.
Today, with a state population more than three times what it was in 1932 and no change in its deck size, the Harbour Bridge can still get us to work pretty darn fast; the extra capacity showed remarkable foresight in its creators.
Reduce the requirements for use (don’t over-tailor):
In new train stations, it’s preferred to build ramps instead of stairs to optimise access – they support easier movement for those with strollers or wheeled luggage, on personal transportation devices, and the mobility impaired.
Stairs, on the other hand, specifically require people to have working knees, and enough strength and balance to carry their belongings (luggage or otherwise) up or down a staircase safely without, say, dropping it on people below them.
Think ‘software’ not ‘hardware’ – or think ‘hardware for software’
‘Software’ being different configurations, uses, layouts, etc., and hardware being your physical infrastructure. A robust piece of infrastructure can often be used or reconfigured.
With our Harbour Bridge example, lanes are bi-directional, and middle lanes are converted to south bound in the morning to get drivers into the city, and north bound in the afternoon to get them out. If permanent barriers had been built between lanes this wouldn’t be possible; however, as the road is flat and the lanes denoted by electronic lane markers above, this reconfiguration is relatively easy.
Acknowledge the limits in ‘flexing’ infrastructure.
While it’s important these days to remain as flexible as possible in the design and operation of our infrastructure, we need to acknowledge that the nature of physical infrastructure is to endure as long as possible.
Take Sydney’s George Street, the road existed long before European settlers put down pavement[i]. We have since built a global city around this route. While NSWs’ rail system has grown over the centuries, the original lines and routes largely remain and are well used.
We add to existing networks and transport routes, but very rarely destroy old ones; instead, we shape, reconfigure and retrofit around these backbones.
This is a reminder that infrastructure plays a role in shaping communities as well as serving them; maybe some certainty is necessary to promote a different kind of flexibility.