Public Sector Future Podcast | Episode 32: Future of Infrastructure: Closing the Infrastructure Gap

Episode 32 guest speaker, Alice Charles

Future of Infrastructure: Closing the infrastructure gap

with Alice Charles

Alice Charles brings a truly global perspective and decades of experience to our discussion of infrastructure and its impact.

Episode 32: Future of Infrastructure: Closing the infrastructure gap

Public Sector Future

Episode summary

Alice Charles brings a truly global perspective and decades of experience to our discussion of infrastructure and its impact. In this conversation, we talked about infrastructure needs around the world, and what kind of investments we need to make to close the gap.

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Closing the infrastructure gap

Alice Charles brings a truly global perspective and decades of experience to our discussion of infrastructure and its impact. In this conversation, we talked about infrastructure needs around the world, and what kind of investments we need to make to close the gap.

The World Economic Forum

Alice Charles decided to study architecture and civil engineering after being inspired by her sibling, who has cerebral palsy. Charles couldn’t help but notice the difficulties her brother had navigating their built environment, so she became an urban planner and consulted with cities and governments on how to make environments more accessible. That work led Charles to join the World Economic Forum.

“So, in the World Economic Forum, I look after city-related activities, but also work on real estate, infrastructure-related projects, et cetera, even sustainable mass timber related work.”

But what is the WEF and what do they do?

“The World Economic Forum is an international organization for public-private collaboration. What that means is we bring together leaders from business, from civil society, from academia, from government to focus on tackling some of the greatest challenges that are facing the globe.”

“And in our context, because we’re focused on cities, that means working with city leaders, senior city officials, and indeed relevant government officials at the national or federal level, who are responsible for cities and infrastructure and real estate. It’s an interesting role and a really interesting organization,” Charles said.

Lessons learned around accessibility

“One of the things that I remember, even from a small child, was the great difficulties in my brother navigating the built environment, and in reality, what did that mean? That meant, you know, trying to get a wheelchair into a building. He had some limited mobility. It meant him trying to walk on pavements that may be slippery and, you know, that weren’t made for people with limited mobility. But I distinctly also remember community services, you know, going to the library, that the library wasn’t accessible for somebody like him. And kids love going to libraries, right, to have story time and read books. So he couldn’t access the same facilities as me.”

Charles also remembers her brother’s activism, that from a very young age he would go in front of politicians and demand change, something he’s still doing today.

“So, I guess, that sort of ignited the activist in me, which brought me into the built environment profession. But certainly when I became an urban planner and I started practicing, and particularly when I started my career in London and went on to, you know, work for larger corporates, we did a lot of consulting on developing master plans and strategies for the redevelopment of cities.”

Charles continued, “And I would always think about, who are the most vulnerable groups in our city. Of course, I would naturally think of disabled, but I would also think of young children who are often not listened to, the elderly. I would think of migrants, I would think of women. I would think about those that are very busy people and just haven’t got time to engage in, you know, a city, a consultation exercise about the future of their city. So, I would always think about, how do I reach those people, how do I get their views?”

Charles would also ask her colleagues to imagine themselves as a wheelchair user or a blind person, a vulnerable person trying to navigate the space they were working to improve. What could be done for them to make that space more accessible? It’s an important question to ask, but easier to answer by asking the people affected.

“I think it’s critically important in terms of the built environment profession, that we do have diversity within those groups of professionals so that we think about wider groups, and we’re making sure that we’re designing for inclusion from the very beginning, because, you know, particularly the built environment profession is very male dominated and it’s very white male dominated.”

Charles added, “So in that sense, you know, we’re not really getting that diversity into the design process at the very beginning. And I hope that with changes that are happening now, we’re starting to see more diversity in the built environment profession. Particularly we’re also seeing change in the university level. I hope over time that there will be much greater inclusion in the built environment.”

Another important step is to make sure conversations around inclusion and accessibility are actually happening and that they continue to happen.

“I think the critical thing is to make sure that voices of all groups that live in our built environment are represented, and, you know, so that we have civil society organizations that can represent those groups, that the citizens themselves can’t come forward. I think it’s critically important that we bring in academia that has done research into how we can better accommodate different groups within society. But I think the very first thing a city needs to do is take stock and say, who lives in our city, and look at that wide range of citizens that live in our city.”

Charles continued, “You know, we often rely now, for example, on gathering data through IoT technology. And the first question you need to ask yourself there is, who is unlikely to interact with that technology, and how do I get their input, so that you’re not making a data-driven decision based on biased data, that you’re actually making a data-driven decision based on inclusive data. So, I think we need to go above and beyond in ensuring we have the relevant people in the room, and the way we gather data is a very inclusive way.”

We have an enormous infrastructure gap

There are infrastructure bills coming forward in both the Global North and Global South that are “fantastic” according to Charles.

“However, not to be overly negative, we also have to recognize that we have an enormous infrastructure gap. And if we are to transition our infrastructure to withstand the worst effects of climate change, then we need to invest very significantly in our infrastructure. And the global infrastructure hub, say that we have around a $15 trillion deficit in infrastructure, likely to have, sorry, by 2040. So that is a very significant bridge.”

“What we need is investment in infrastructure, in tandem with development. That has not been happening. There’s an opportunity for new builds to be done in a much better way, not to make the mistakes that we made in the Global South. But that requires concerted effort, both from multilateral development, banks, governments in the Global North to also contribute, and from investors and financing institutions to invest in the delivery of that critical infrastructure in Africa.”

Charles recognizes that there are risks to investing in Africa or India, but that it’s a much-needed investment. And she has many other ideas on what else is required to provide infrastructure as well as development.

“What we need more than ever, given, you know, the energy crisis that we’re having, the energy security crisis that we’re having is in the Global North it’s focusing on retrofitting homes as soon as possible, you know, really ramping up renewable sources of energy.  It’s also encouraging people to walk and cycle, avail of public transport as much as possible, incentivize the use of public transport as much as possible, and, you know, focusing on decarbonizing our great infrastructure.”

Charles continued, “So, that’s what we need to focus on, and we need good urban planning to prevent sprawl, because we can’t have a compact city or a net zero carbon city unless we contain urban sprawl.”

Holistic interventions

Measuring success in the public sector can be challenging, especially with a subject like affordable housing, which is a big part of what Alice Charles and her team work on.

“In relation to housing, you need to take a step back and understand what are the challenges that give rise to the affordable housing crisis that we’re experiencing in cities around the world. And, you know, it’s not necessarily going to be the same challenges in every city, but broadly, they relate to issues in relation to acquisition and titling, and they relate to issues around supply and availability of land. They relate to issues around the cost of construction, and they relate to issues around financing and the lack of availability of financing. So, they’re all sort of supply side challenges, getting the supply of land to actually build houses.”

Charles finds that in most cities and countries around the world, housing can be very politically charged, and a lot of interventions are made just for the short-term.

“I think what is needed is more holistic interventions. What I mean by holistic interventions is looking at all of the challenges that give rise to the problem and coming up with solutions that will solve the entirety of that problem. Or in the same way, if you were building a building in a city, it’s not just thinking about the interior of that building but thinking about how that building sits within the city.”

Charles added, “So, I guess what I would say is every government needs to understand the challenges that give rise to the problem and then bring forward measures to try and address it. But governments will have responsibility in terms of supply, just like the private sector. And to just rely on the private sector will mean you won’t get to balance.”

An example Charles gives is a public transport scheme that was recently brought forward in Hong Kong:

“They were able to use digital twin technology to analyze what was happening at the subterranean level in the city, to determine what was the optimum route that they were going to use for the development of that public transport system. They were able to identify all of the constraints and, you know, for example, utilities, able to look at the sort of geology, et cetera associated with the subterranean level, and make a quick decision, which saves a lot of time. It means that when you start construction, you’re not going to encounter all these obstacles, which suddenly stops the development of the infrastructure. You go back to the drawing board, think, how do we redo it? You’re adding significant cost.”

Charles continued, “That’s what I mean by looking at, in that context, how we’re going to address the challenges holistically, in that case, they used enabling technology to assist with that. So, it’s at the very beginning, look at all the challenges you may encounter, try to come up with the optimum route, and then roll it out in a more smart and efficient way.”

Digitalizing your process

Having to internally digitalize your business processes can be daunting for a lot of industries and governments, but it’s crucial to the future of planning.

“I think that what often happens is you see some degree of intervention starting in the planning department, because they have to make the future city plan, and they recognize that there’s benefits in doing so.  What is all the data that we have as a city? How can we layer that data on top of each other and make evidence-based decisions based on our current situation? And through that exercise, you start to see capabilities spring up across the city administration, because the planning department has to work with every department across the city as they’re making the city plan, they’re developing the strategy. So you start to see that the skills improve, the digital skills improve across departments,” Charles said.

“However, most cities that I would speak to, particularly in the global sites, would say, we just don’t have that capability. We have a capacity deficit in terms of qualified professionals. In some cases, people, you know, might have just went into the civil service at 18 years of age. They may not have a qualification. So, there’s a piece around having to send people back to school to get their qualification in some parts of the world. So that’s one obstacle.  The second then is everything is done with paper. So, it’s thinking about how do we move from paper to an alternative system. It’s a quantum leap for them, and I think most of them would say that it’s very difficult.” 

Charles added, “What I do see is some of them partnering with academic institutions, who can help them with some of that, right, that they can come in, the students can come in, do some of the work with them. Also, in turn, develop some of that capacity within the city authority. So, I often see really good partnerships with academia to help them overcome that gap in the Global South. And philanthropy also helps out as well to some degree, but particularly universities can really help them bridge some of that gap.”

The economy of cities

When asked about the intersection of technology and infrastructure in the current moment of COVID recovery, this is what Alice Charles had to contribute:

“I strongly believe the office is not dead, because we need to go to the office to meet colleagues, you know, to collaborate with those colleagues. There’s also a cultural aspect of coming together. And whilst we can still do that in a hybrid working manner, you know, I think we haven’t really seen that balance as yet between the appropriate time to spend at home and the appropriate time to spend in the office.”

“I’ve been hearing a lot from cities about the impact on the economy of cities because people are not in the office. So, you know, in a lot of cities, they say we only have a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday economy right now, because a lot of people work from home Mondays and Fridays. They’re also seeing less people have been traveling. So it’s had a very significant impact on the economy of cities.”

Charles concluded, “We’re also seeing, in some cases, you know, some companies have downsized their offices. Retail footprints have been downsized. I find it a very interesting decision, because I feel that more will likely follow.  So for me, I think that will actually have a profound impact, if a lot of people start to go back to the office, on our town and city centers.”

About the Center of Expertise

Microsoft’s Public Sector Center of Expertise brings together thought leadership and research relating to digital transformation in the public sector. The Center of Expertise highlights the efforts and success stories of public servants around the globe, while fostering a community of decision makers with a variety of resources from podcasts and webinars to white papers and new research. Join us as we discover and share the learnings and achievements of public sector communities.

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