Bring up cities in the year 2050, and the conversation might steer towards flying cars, holographic projections and gleaming skyscrapers. But in most parts of the world, this is a distant dream that’s incongruent with the everyday.

The past year has only widened the gap. Many governments are now “constrained” after spending massive amounts to tide through the pandemic, says Seth Tan, Executive Director at Infrastructure Asia. But pressing infrastructure needs, such as public health services and digital connectivity, remain.

There is a huge gap that the private sector can fill. It currently finances only about ten per cent of Southeast Asia’s infrastructure, Tan shares. GovInsider spoke to Tan to understand how his organisation is laying the ground for the region’s rebuilding.

Adaptable infrastructure

Infrastructure Asia serves to connect private investors with public infrastructure needs. It sources the funds and expertise needed to bring governments’ projects to life, and plays a central role in building up the cities of tomorrow.

The world and its needs are ever changing, however. Three quarters of the infrastructure that we will need by 2050 doesn’t exist yet today, according to a United Nations Environment Programme report.

Governments need to build for flexibility, even with large projects. Zambia, for instance, faced widespread outages during a drought, which cut its hydroelectricity supply. Hydroelectric dams contribute to 95 per cent of the country’s power, reported

Singapore’s floating solar farm tech could offer solutions to changing weather conditions. Traditional hydropower plants may operate at suboptimal levels in dry seasons. Rather than having to build a new plant, solar energy could make up for seasons with less rain, he shares.

“Every ten or 20 years, every city has to change,” Tan says. But not all infrastructure may need to be overhauled.

“Reprioritised world”

The pandemic has reprioritised the world’s needs. Tan sees four key areas of infrastructure that Southeast Asia will need to focus on.

First, governments have to rethink how to move goods around, as people gravitate towards homes and away from workplaces. They may have to diversify their supplies and digitalise each node along the supply chain, whether that’s customs or shipping.

The second priority is digital connectivity. The pandemic has driven citizens indoors and online. This has revealed gaps, “even in countries where, in the past, digital connectivity has been strong,” Tan notes. An ASEAN webinar held last August revealed that half of the world is not connected properly, he adds.

The third is public health and the wider issues that come with it, such as waste and waste water treatment. “These issues are now becoming more important, particularly when working from home,” he shares.

Fourthly is clean energy projects. There are a lot of ready financial resources in the market, and “they may in turn propel some of this green infrastructure forward,” he believes.

Partnering with bigger players

The organisation is working with bigger investors such as Japan and China to make sustainable infrastructure more feasible.

In 2019, it helped to set up a co-investment platform between Singapore-based urban consultancy Surbana Jurong and China’s Silk Road Fund. This fund is part of the Chinese government’s expansive Belt and Road Initiative to support global infrastructure projects.

The platform will focus on setting up new infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia, with the partners contributing equal sums to each initiative. They plan to invest around US$500 million over the next few years, wrote Infrastructure Asia.

The organisation has also partnered with Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. They will bring together Singapore and Japanese firms to work on building roads and bridges and smart cities, a Ministry report wrote.

Building up the region

Besides connecting the region, Infrastructure Asia is also equipping governments with the skills to attract investors for clean energy projects. These may not seem very profitable at first glance, which often discourages funders, Tan says.

The organisation partnered with The World Bank Group and Singapore Management University to start a Growing Infrastructure Course. It aims to equip regional government officials with the skills and knowledge to attract international financing for sustainable projects. “In a lot of emerging markets, their local ecosystem is insufficient to support all the infrastructure needs,” he explains.

The course targets senior and mid level government officials in the region. “It is the implementers that are important,” Tan says.

The pandemic has given cities the opportunity to build back not just better, but right. The right partnerships will be crucial as governments seek to build resilience into their infrastructure.

Image by Infrastructure Asia