How can we get more from our infrastructure?

Rethinking how we use our existing infrastructure

Data & Decisions

Long-term planning

Existing infrastructure

8 min read

Photography iStock

Buying public infrastructure is like buying a car – there are many options. Am I better off buying new, or spending money on what I already have? And what size car do I really need?

Infrastructure decisions are too expensive to get wrong. At every step in the planning, building and operation we can save, or lose, many millions of dollars depending on the decisions that are made.

We have a big infrastructure challenge ahead of us. To support our growing population, decarbonise the economy, and lift our living standards, we need much more than we have. In fact, the problem is too big for us to simply buy our way out. Instead, we need to make smarter choices about how we use our infrastructure and what new infrastructure we build.

This isn’t something we’ve always done well. In fact, we’re ranked in the bottom 10% of the developed world when it comes to getting value for money from infrastructure – a result that’s largely due to the decisions we make about what we build and how we build it.

It’s not too late to turn this around. The sooner we start, the sooner we are on a path to a thriving future.

Planning for the long term

Infrastructure can last for 100 years or more. Making better infrastructure decisions mean thinking years and often decades ahead.

"We’re not just planning for today but also for tomorrow’s generations of New Zealanders and beyond. Will they thank us for the legacy we are leaving them?"

We need to think about and plan for long-term trends such as a growing population, a changing climate, and rapidly changing technologies when we are making big infrastructure decisions. And, critically, we can plan for infrastructure like roads, homes, schools, water, power and communications as a package, anticipating the needs of our growing communities instead of reacting when it’s too late.

It’s critical then that our construction industry is planning ahead too, but to do that they need certainty. Knowing more about what projects are on the horizon will mean they can make better decisions about investing in the people and machinery they will need – creating long-term careers and getting stronger results for all of us.

As the biggest purchaser of infrastructure, the government can help provide that certainty. Already, Te Waihanga shares information on project plans through its online infrastructure pipeline, but the potential is there for government to go much further and signal a decade out what it wants to see built.

Setting priorities

We can also learn from Australia and start to share a priority list of the projects that have been proven to help solve our biggest problems. As well as this, where a specific project has yet to be identified, we can prioritise the infrastructure problems that need solving.

The projects on the priority list won’t necessarily be the biggest or the most glamourous. Instead it will reflect projects that can make a significant impact towards solving some of our long-term challenges like the needs of a growing population or addressing climate change.

"Rather than build an expensive new road, managing demand on our existing roads might be a better option."

Are we buying the right thing?

Good decision-making starts with a clear problem definition and explores a range of different options. This includes considering alternatives to building new infrastructure.

For instance, rather than build an expensive new road, managing demand on our existing roads might be a better option. This can be achieved by charging people to use roads at peak times alongside investment in public transport and making it easier for people to learn or work remotely. Or perhaps it means adding cycle lanes to a road so bikes and scooters become a better option for commuters.

Some of the things we need to do

Improving the way we make decisions about infrastructure will be key to meeting the challenges we’re going to face over the next 30 years. It will mean working hard to get better decision-making processes, including learning from our mistakes.

The New Zealand Infrastructure Strategy explores some of the changes we’ll need to make, and these include:

  • Setting clearer long-term plans and priorities for the infrastructure we’re going to need.
  • Getting better at exploring and evaluating all of the options before a decision is made.
  • Improving government’s ability to procure infrastructure across the board.
  • Evaluating and analysing our decision-making and our infrastructure performance, building the information we have so we can continue to improve.