Infrastructure as driver of a sustainable society

Unexpected events during the past years have brought many of us to re-consider the values of life. The pandemic made many people move out from compact urban apartments and back to the spacious countryside. Companies are struggling to find employees because people are leaving their permanent employment to work short-term contracts, and although the pandemic restrictions are over people choose to work from home instead of going to the office.

, by Jukka Viitanen

What has made these changes possible is technological development and modern infrastructure. Transportation-, communication-, sanitation- and energy infrastructure in western countries is well developed even in remote areas. Developed societies invest very organized in constructing and maintaining the infrastructure, and the expectation is that functioning infrastructure is provided equally to all citizens. Constructing and maintaining infrastructure is material- and energy intensive, meaning the harmful environmental impact can be significant. At the same time, well-functioning infrastructure has positive societal impact, and it is necessary for the economy. Majority of infrastructure projects are funded by public money, especially when it comes to transport infrastructure. Considering the sustainability targets of EU and the national, even more ambitious targets, one might think sustainability is of high priority even in the infrastructure projects.

Good infrastructure provides value to all members of the society. Thinking about the social sustainability, functioning and accessible transport infrastructure does indeed increase equality. Roads and railways enable commuting between home and work, but also going to hobbies and other activities. It enables interaction between people, meeting family and friends, giving us freedom to choose where to live, for example. Transport infrastructure is also necessary when it comes to delivering goods and services from one place to another enabling high standard of living not only in the urban, but also in rural areas. During the past year, since Russia attacked Ukraine, we have unfortunately got a reminder, that transport infrastructure may be used in political and aggressive purposes. On the other hand, it can provide safety and security both during the good times but also through turbulent times. Investing in transport infrastructure is an investment that all members of society need and can benefit from.

As good infrastructure is good for social sustainability, it is good for the economic sustainability, too. Achieving economic growth and prosperity is challenging without well operating transports and logistics. The availability of raw materials, goods, energy, labor and achievability of customers and the market are necessary for economic activity. Therefore, as described earlier about the social sustainability, the impact of good infrastructure is similar to economic sustainability. These two are highly interconnected to each other; investments in infrastructure are known to have a positive impact on economic activity and on the well-being of the members of society. Some countries, as for example Sweden, have infrastructure investment plans overarching a decade long period, because stability in the development of infrastructure has proven to have positive effect in businesses. Sweden has certainly succeeded to develop businesses across the country, and good infrastructure plays a crucial role in that.

Although we know that sustainability is all about the balance between social, economic, and environmental sustainability, we still act like environmental sustainability is an individual function and nature an endless source for raw materials. The positive impact into two dimensions of sustainability, economic and social, has been valued over the environmental sustainability, because natural resources have provided growth and increased wealth for centuries. At the same time, we have come to realize that we are dependent on energy and raw materials imported from countries that do not respect human rights as we do, or that neglect the environmental impact of extracting raw materials, and in many cases both. Infrastructure, as the built environment in general, requires a lot of materials and energy to construct and maintain. The land use and resource needs of infrastructure projects requiring vast spatial areas and changing the environment permanently are challenging from an environmental perspective.

Infrastructure projects, as all projects within construction, are rather strictly regulated and require an approval or authorization by authorities before start. Once the decision about a new infrastructure project has been done, the process usually continues with an environmental impact assessment, the EIA, as required by EU directive and amended in national legislation. In big projects it is typically done earlier as part of the land use planning. The EIA is a comprehensive process evaluating alternatives and their impact in the environment both during the construction phase and thereafter. To some extent, the EIA also takes social aspects into account, there is stakeholder dialogue and economical aspect are evaluated. In the end, the EIA is a separate process that doesn´t necessarily have much impact in the approval or authorization the project start requires. This means, that for example an infrastructure project that has been evaluated doing harmful impact for environment may anyway get an approval to be carried out. Evaluating socio-economic and environmental aspects is complex and depends also on the perspective; long-term positive impact may override short-term harmful impact, and national impact is often more important than local impact. Land use may therefore appear locally and especially individually unfair and unsustainable, while serving wider interest. On the other hand, decision making is very difficult, especially when it comes to infrastructure having impact that overarches for decades, and even centuries.

Sustainability aspects of constructing and maintaining infrastructure are decided already during the design and tendering phase, in other words before the project start. This, in my opinion, is the reason why environmental sustainability often is considered as cost at projects. If the entrepreneur is unaware of developers/customers sustainability goals before offering a project, sustainability aspect usually become cost adding due to unpreparedness. Sustainability goals may be requiring energy efficient machinery at project, developing a low-carbon work site, circular material approach or even life cycle approach. In the end, they all have the same target, which is reducing the harmful impact, but unless the execution is unorganized, results may be weak. If for example emission reduction is only achieved by using renewable fuels or investing in brand new machinery, there are several problems in the approach. The first one is accepting higher cost to reduce emissions, and the second one is that no attention is paid to reduce energy consumption. Reducing emissions may be as easy as removing all unnecessary idling, planning the different phases to be executed efficiently and considering circular material flow. There are several pilots where these approaches have been tested and proved to work, but despite of that, the conventional methods are still dominant, and it is the price in the offer that is decisive. Cutting emissions by removing idling and increasing efficiency doesn´t cost anything, but on the contrary.

Luckily, there are some ambitious sustainable customers out in the infrastructure market, that lead the way for sustainable development. Good examples of these are cities of Helsinki and Tampere in Finland, who have decided to develop light rail as public transport. In Tampere, the climate work in the second phase of the tramway has been incentivized. The carbon footprint was calculated before the project start and is followed-up during the project. Once the alliance that is constructing the tramway succeeds to reduce the emissions, a bonus is paid. That is much more than conventional climate accounting, making climate work a tool for management. In Helsinki, the Crown Bridges will connect the eastern island of the city to the center within couple of years with a light rail connection. This project has been decided to certify according to BREEAM Infrastructure, that is a sustainability assessment tool for infrastructure projects. Certifying such a large project will drive the entrepreneurs to find more sustainable ways of working, because the certificate is a requirement. These are just two examples of how sustainable development may be accelerated at infrastructure projects.

Recent past has forced us to think again on our approach to many things. Fossil fuel dependency has shown to be a mistake, global supply chains and dependency on another country made us vulnerable for sudden shortages and not everyone play by the same values. According to scientists, there are nine planetary boundaries we must respect so the planets´ ability to prosper life remains. So far, these boundaries have remained rather invisible. Now we have seen the boundaries, and we know we must act. This requires changing the old habits and implementing new ways of working, which already exist, even within infrastructure.

This article was first published in the Baltic Rim Economies 5/2022.


Jukka Viitanen

Head of Sustainability