George Hutchinson

The Infrastructure Century: Brunellian ambition shifts beyond our western borders

You could be forgiven for thinking that the best days of infrastructure are behind us, says George Hutchinson.

The ambition of Brunel and the Victorians, cut down to size by Beeching in the 60s, or brought to a standstill by endless indecision of later decades, has now been replaced by a lack of ambition that is slowly suffocating our infrastructure. 

And it is not just happening here, but abroad. 

The US, the builder of projects so ambitious they took us to the moon, flew its last Space Shuttle in 2011. And they are now back using rockets that look like they are from a previous age. Even in the vanguard of engineering precision that is Germany they struggling so much to finish their airport in Berlin, that now more than two years late no completion date is being set. It feels as though we are going backwards and the days of infrastructure growth, ambition and the grand projects are at an end. 

Think of China, India, Brazil, Russia and add to that Nigeria and the other accelerating growth economies of Africa. These are the places where infrastructure is changing the world. 

Western centric and downbeat this picture fails to tell the story of what is really happening when we look outside. It ignores the true scale of infrastructure development and investment that is going in at a global level. Just consider the following: 

“In the last three years, China used more cement than the US used in the entire last century.” 

This ‘most staggering statistic’ from historian Vaclav Smil in his book, Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization, is drawn from US Geological Survey data. And, it provides the most compelling piece of evidence to show the scale of change that the world is going through.

But, whilst most dramatic in China, these changes are not solely confined to the world’s second largest economy, or even just the BRICS. The acceleration of development, infrastructure and economic growth is being seen more widely across the world. And as economies develop, so must their investments in infrastructure. The next 20 years may well still be about Chinese and Indian growth and investment, but the never ending expansion of our infrastructure base is also likely to come from the wider world. 

In July 2013, the African Development Bank published a report showing that Africa was now the world’s fastest growing economy by continent. And this growth was not a one off, it was sustained growth built up over the previous decade. But, there remains a significant barrier to growth – infrastructure investment. Whilst China invests around 14% of its GDP in infrastructure, currently the average across the African continent is just 4%. A number too low to sustain growth. 

At the turn of the Millennium, the UN Millennium Development Goals were set to eradicate extreme poverty, provide access to education and defeat disease.  Much progress has been achieved on all these fronts and whilst it is impossible to say whether economic or social development came first, it is certain that the development indicators have improved across the board, none more so than in sub-Saharan Africa. 

So, as the world looks to set new targets from 2015, nations are considering goals that include access to clean water, sanitation, energy, as well as urbanisation and an industrial base built as long term and sustainable propositions. Propositions whose foundations are infrastructure.  Infrastructure that sustains societies. Infrastructure on the scale of change seen in China, but to be spread across continents like Africa where that change can drive substantial and sustainable long term growth. 

Back in the UK the opening of Crossrail, hosting of the Olympics, or even the building of HS2 (should it ever happen), will never feel as great as those original achievements of Brunel and his counterparts as they transformed Britain. We are, however, incredibly lucky to live in country where we take our infrastructure for granted only to complain when we wait more than two minutes for a Tube, when our flight is delayed, or when we turn on a tap and water doesn’t come out. 

The majority of peoples and countries across the world are not yet that lucky. As the cement statistic suggests, however, progress is being made at a speed and on a scale that seems previously unimaginable.

Think of China, India, Brazil, Russia and add to that Nigeria and the other accelerating growth economies of Africa. These are the places where infrastructure is changing the world. And they are where the grandest of all projects, through the building of long term sustainable economies that improve the quality of life for all, will be delivered during this century, the true infrastructure century. 

George Hutchinson is a partner at consultant Stockwell Communications.