The latest Global Infrastructure Index study highlights five issues that the industry needs to be aware of and take action, says Ben Marshall of Ipsos Mori.
There are many jaw-dropping, mind-boggling megaprojects being built around the world right now. Colossal structures, new bridges, airports, high speed rail, dams and irrigation schemes are pushing the boundaries of engineering and construction. But infrastructure has something of an image problem which must be addressed if it is to unify rather than divide, to achieve not fail.
This month in Britain, the chief executive of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering, Hannah Vickers, described “disruptive influences” shaping a new era and creating a “perfect moment for change.” The imperative to change can also be said of the way infrastructure manages public sentiment. The disruption described by Vickers is fuelling populism and a cultural backdrop which could hinder as much as help infrastructure.
These challenges and opportunities are laid bare by a unique study of public sentiment across 29 countries, the Global Infrastructure Index, undertaken by Ipsos in partnership with the Global Infrastructure Investors Association. The study highlights five issues that need to be considered and addressed.
1. The term ‘infrastructure’ needs deconstructing. When we asked the public across 29 countries to rate infrastructure we got substantially lower levels of positivity in each country than the average across ten sectors (asked individually). The implication of this is that while the infrastructure story – the big picture strategy – needs telling, the term can be off-putting in its generality. Thus, campaigns need to be built around particular (popular) projects and in sectors.
2. (Mis)perceptions matter. My colleagues in Italy and Australia were quick to point out that their countries do not have nuclear plants. In the case of Italy, 47% still felt able to answer and rated nuclear infrastructure negatively. While it is possible that some Italians are negative because of the absence of a nuclear infrastructure, a more likely scenario is that confirmation bias is at play. In a similar vein, is Italy’s digital infrastructure really inferior to that of Peru and Malaysia?
3. There is a democratic deficit. Globally, 55% believe not enough is done to involve people in decisions about which infrastructure to invest in, only 8% disagree. Slightly more disagree than agree that my local area gets its fair share of their country’s investment in infrastructure (on this, Britain ranks 22nd out of the 29 countries).
4. People are pragmatic as well as principled. While keen for people to be involved – a focus on means not just ends – more people say they are comfortable with foreign investment in new infrastructure if it means it gets built more quickly than are against this. In Britain, concerns about accountability and profiteering are edging sentiment further towards public ownership and investment.
5. Sell the ‘why’, not just the ‘what’. Almost three quarters agree that investing in infrastructure is vital to the country’s future economic growth but six in ten do not believe enough is being done to meet needs. Infrastructure is pushing at an open door. But previous Global Infrastructure Index surveys have found people have a dim view about their country’s record on infrastructure and the lack of tangibility of many benefits means that projects are judged, sometimes exclusively, on keeping to budget and time.
So, lots to think, and do, something about. But who should lead? It would be tempting to say engineers on the back of the latest Ipsos MORI Veracity Index which had them at the top end of trusted professions in Britain. People do trust experts, but infrastructure also needs the democratic accountability and reach of politicians, and it is telling that populists are increasingly weaponising the issue against establishment governments.
Ben Marshall is a research director at Ipsos MORI who works with infrastructure leaders, using insights to support design, delivery, marketing and evaluation.