Basic infrastructure needs of transport and connectivity, protection and liveability haven’t changed through the ages, the International Symposium for Next Generation Infrastructure (ISNGI) at the University of Wollongong heard at its opening session this week.

But technology, social expectations and the population pressures of the modern world are posing new challenges for the provision of the next generation of that infrastructure.

Experts in the infrastructure field from around the world have gathered for the inaugural symposium, hosted by UOW’s SMART Infrastructure Facility over three days from Tuesday (October 1), to consider some of the big issues in providing future infrastructure.

Next year ISNGI will move to Vienna, then the US in 2015 and South-east Asia in 2016.

In his welcome address to delegates, SMART Director Garry Bowditch said he hoped the symposium would help demonstrate the value of state-of-the-art science and policy development for infrastructure, providing tools to government through evidence and evidence-based research to help them make better decisions about future infrastructure.

One of the opening day’s keynote speakers, Professor Margot Weijnen from Delft University in the Netherlands, explained that humans’ infrastructure needs had not changed over the centuries.

She pointed to the Great Wall of China as an example of protection infrastructure that was thousands of years old, and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (created around 600 years BC) as an example of an irrigation scheme designed to provide comfort and liveability for the citizens, while the sophisticated road networks of the Roman Empire and the roads and canals of ancient China greatly enhanced trade and the movement of people in the ancient world.

In Professor Weijnen’s low-lying homeland of The Netherlands, where keeping the sea at bay has been a key to survival, the first water management board was established almost 800 years ago in 1255.

“The basic foundations of infrastructure have remained the same through the ages,” Professor Weijnen said. “(What has changed) is the tension between that remarkable stability and the volatility of our world.”

Major technological developments through the centuries, such as the development of the steam engine, railways, bulk container shipping, air travel and so on, have fundamentally changed the world’s infrastructure, and its environment, she said.

Ecologist Professor Graham Harris, who is Honorary Professor of Infrastructure Systems at SMART, was the first presenter on the symposium’s opening day and set the delegates a philosophical question. “We in the human world have exploited the natural world for so long. Now there are seven billion of us huddled in mega-cities around the world … introducing the very interesting question of sustainability …” he said.

However, the cost of providing or replacing infrastructure plays a key role in the decision-making process.

Dr Don Hillebrand from Argonne Laboratories in the US is an international expert in the evaluation of technologies to lessen mankind’s reliance on petroleum for land transport. Over the years Argonne’s researchers had evaluated synthetic fuels, methanol, ethanol, hydrogen and various forms of electric motors.

“We’re like the guys who bet on every horse in the race. We don’t care who wins,” Dr Hillebrand said. “(But) they (the competing fuels) all died trying to kill off petroleum.”

And while on-going technological improvements to the efficiency of combustion engines played a role, infrastructure was also a key factor.

Dr Hillebrand said that a century of development of infrastructure to support the combustion engine (such as vast networks of petrol stations in every country of the world) meant that any competing technology had to be exceptional to justify the enormous cost of providing suitable fuel supply infrastructure.

“The infrastructure to support the combustion engine is already there, so competing technologies have to blow it away … they can’t just be a little bit better. But we found among the competing technologies, some of the greenest and nicest technologies had of a lot of Archilles heels.”

The second day’s program featured presenters from the UK, US, Korea and Japan, with topics ranging from Korean Development Institute Executive Director Dr Kang-Soo Kim’s presentation on how infrastructure planning and financing had propelled Korea’s extraordinary economic growth in the past five decades, to University College London Professor of Engineering Policy Brian Collins talking about the challenges of politics getting in the way of sound decisions about infrastructure.

SMART Infrastructure Facility Advisory Board Chairman Dr Ken Henry was the keynote speaker at the Symposium Dinner on Wednesday night, talking about the challenges Australia faces in the infrastructure sphere.

The day three program included a presentation from Professor Warwick McKibbin from the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, who spoke about macroeconomic outcomes from infrastructure spending in Australia.

Professor McKibbin said Australia was currently missing a great opportunity to fund infrastructure through borrowing in international markets at a time of historically low interest rates.

He said a permanent spend of one percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on infrastructure in Australia would have a significant positive impact on the Australian economy in the long term.

Report: Nick Hartgerink