Until recently, the logic in infrastructure development has been the primacy of economic profit. Without neglecting, of course, quality and performance standards without which this profit would never be achieved. However, the passage of time and increasingly extreme climatic conditions have put traditional infrastructures in check.
We often see essential services and infrastructures suffer outages, put human safety at risk, and bring with them high repair or maintenance costs. Just the opposite of the main objective: economic benefit.
Change of concept
Keys to reversing the situation
Two keys to reverse the situation: sustainability and resilience. These have not been considered until now as part of the life cycle of an infrastructure. The U.S. Administration has been the latest to legislate on this issue with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which allocates more than $1 trillion to retrofit infrastructure across the country. From roads and bridges to a power grid more conducive to the energy transition, to improving water infrastructure, which is increasingly vulnerable to inclement weather.
"Water is an essential source of energy, but not only energy, as it is also essential for agriculture. If we do not protect stored water sources, agricultural production is affected. Water is essential for our homes, our cities and our well-being. Many infrastructures depend on water, so we are obliged to integrate sustainability as an organizing principle to meet these needs," explains Afreen Siddiqi, researcher and lecturer in the online program Sustainable Infrastructure Systems: Planning, Analysis and Development offered by MIT Professional Education, in the latest program of The Digital Journey podcast produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Sustainable and efficient infrastructures
Those most reluctant to prioritize sustainability point to its high cost. They are right: the transition is not costless. The latest projections from the International Renewable Energy Agency reflect that, to reach the Paris targets by 2050, an investment of $4.4 trillion per year is required in low-energy energy alone. Public-private cooperation is essential in order to control and manage investments well.
It is therefore important to highlight some examples of orderly transitions that have brought positive results. In Medellín (Colombia), up to 30 green corridors have been built in the city in recent years. This measure has achieved a 2°C reduction in the temperature of some areas. In addition, dozens of professionals have been employed in gardening and some areas isolated by waste dumping have been reclaimed.
In Singapore, the third most densely populated country in the world, they have managed to improve drainage systems to reduce the threat of flooding in monsoon periods. The country has 17 reservoirs, more than 8,000 kilometers of canals and up to 32 rivers. Water management has always been very pragmatic, but in little aesthetic sync with the city or social activity. After several years of sustainable development, the city has been transformed and is referred to as the city of gardens and water.
Another example is Mercamadrid, home to the second largest fish market in the world. An area of 42,600 m2 whose air conditioning has been an intense puzzle for years. The conditions of the site made it impossible to implement a common solution. Therefore, a project was launched in 2018 to improve the cooling of the hall. Through the evaporation of humidity, they have managed to introduce filtered air at low temperature into the hall, without using compressors or gas, and at a lower electricity cost. A solution based on energy efficiency and sustainability that managed to reduce the temperature in the area by up to 5°C.
What to do with existing infrastructure?
Until sustainable infrastructure reaches a significant scale, investment will be higher than conventional infrastructure. This does not preclude highlighting the impact of traditional practices. Construction is an industry responsible, directly or indirectly, for almost 25% of greenhouse gas emissions. And it creates around 20.4 million tons of waste per year between construction and demolition.
The dilemma between sustainable innovation and maintaining existing infrastructure is on the table for the public and private sectors. "We live on a finite planet with finite resources. Eventually, we will face resource constraints. The sooner we recognize that interconnectedness, the sooner we can take informed action," concludes Afreen Sidiqqi.
Time is against us. That is why the world's leading knowledge centers committed to scientific and human development, such as MIT itself, are designing training programs for professionals to understand, master and lead change in the place that will be home to all: the future.