Global Cooperation

How do we boost support for sustainable infrastructure?

David Thorpe
Special Consultant, Sustainable Cities Collective
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Urban infrastructure and services in cities around the world are in need of major investment within the next five years if they are to remain adequate, according to 68% of respondents to a survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

Urban Infrastructure Concerns questionnaire results

But many of these services, such as water, are invisible and the need to upgrade may not become apparent until service is disrupted. “Most citizens are more likely to be concerned about infrastructure that they can see breaking down,” said Brian Gardner, Senior Editor at the EIU, and editor of the report. “They don’t see potholes or traffic jams in their water, sewage or energy infrastructure, so it is easy to assume these systems are always fully-functioning.”

Commissioned by FCC (Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas), the Spanish environmental services, infrastructure and water group, the findings of the survey have been published in a new report entitled “Urban Infrastructure Insights 2015”.

The most needed upgrades seen as being required were as follows:

Urban infrastructure questionnaire results most needed upgrades

The report investigates infrastructure’s importance for urban economic growth as well as the social, political and financial obstacles to effective infrastructure and service delivery. It is based on a survey of over 400 respondents: 300 business executives and 100 policymakers in Western Europe, North America, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific.

Respondents were asked what cities should do to become more sustainable? Making businesses become more energy efficient was the most popular response, followed by promoting local community initiatives and investing in renewable energy:

Questionnaire results on what should cities due to become more sustainable

Respondents said there was interest in sustainable infrastructure projects especially if they involve energy, such as setting energy efficiency standards for businesses. But just 26% said their city should focus on reducing water consumption.

Only 25% wanted to see more investment in reducing waste and improving recycling.

This means that cities must engage and educate their citizens more and gain their support about the environmental benefits of investing in recycling, water management, public transportation and similar topics.

Questionnaire results on sustainability and infrastructure and public engagement

Some city leaders are already gaining support for sustainable initiatives. In Abu Dhabi, leaders set a public goal to generate 7% of city electricity from renewable resources by 2020 and Vancouver has recently published a 10 step action plan to become the greatest city in the world by 2020.

Respondents to the survey overwhelmingly blamed city leaders for poor infrastructure and services. They cited a lack of political will (40%), lack of skills among officials (39%), and poor governmental effectiveness (34%) as the principal impediments to infrastructure delivery.

Leading obstacles to urban infrastructure services upgrades

While most think that the public sector should lead these initiatives, 82% say the government should work to a greater extent with the private sector to improve urban infrastructure and services.

The leading infrastructure concerns are transport related: rail and road investments. This underscores the need for sustainable systems for transporting people and goods, says the EIU.

Questionnaire results on urban infrastructure requirements

The role of the public in this process needs to be recognised, the report says. In his foreword, Juan Bejar, Vice Chairman & CEO, FCC Group, says that the debate about big data and smart cities has “underestimated the capacity of cities’ own citizens and the role they complain in using technological advances to participate in the local decision making and become stakeholders in their urban environments.”

“The real challenge is matching the expectations and requirements of citizens with practical, financially viable solutions delivered by service providers and city authorities,” he adds.

Other key findings are that:

  • respondents in Western Europe were more likely to cite a lack of funds as an impediment than any other region;
  • respondents were eager to support renewable energy, but less aware of the value of water and waste projects;
  • over 70% say they would be more likely to change their energy/water consumption and transport usage if they were given better access to information about their use of the services;
  • they wanted to focus more on operations and maintenance;
  • urban infrastructure is still in relatively good shape but needs major investment to remain that way;
  • better collaboration between citizens and city leaders is needed to ensure success;
  • therefore executives believe that improving education should be a top concern, but policymakers do not even put it in the top three concerns.


The findings of this report highlight that some of the biggest challenges cities face lie in urban waste management, particularly in terms of galvanising wider support for these services, observes Agustín García Gila, the Chairman of FCC Medio Ambiente.

“According to the World Bank, by 2025 4.3 billion urban residents are expected to be generating 2.2 billion tonnes of urban waste every year, so it is critical to manage waste more effectively and more efficiently than ever before.”

“If we want the support of citizens it is vital that we continue to do this across all age groups, and every urban environment we operate in,” he concludes.

This article is published in collaboration with the Sustainable Cities Collective. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: David Thorpe is a Special Consultant at the Sustainable Cities Collective.

Image: Vehicles move along New Delhi’s Connaught Place during evening hours. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee. 

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