Infrastructure Summit Day 2: Rethinking The Infrastructure Deficit

The keynote address by asset management expert, Dr Penny Burns, was pretty interesting. She apparently rewrote the second half of her speech to take account of what she’d learned and experienced at the summit so far. And she reframed the debate away from one of how do we find funding to close the infrastructure gap, to how do we do things differently so that our infrastructure stops being a cost for our cities and towns.

Here are a few highlights from an excellent speech….

I predict that in future this infrastructure summit with its focus on innovation will be seen as a defining point in the history of infrastructure asset management. A time when we changed direction and by doing so saved our communities.

Even very advanced councils are now realizing that seeking to address all of their infrastructure deficits by throwing money at them is an impossible task. Taken all together, the task is just too big and it’s not difficult to see why. Your assets are wearing out a rate of about two per cent per year, maybe a little more.

I want to ask you, what is the total replacement costs of your assets? And the next question is, are you prepared to put aside two per cent of this amount every year in preparation for renewal? If we are honest, and we do need to be honest, we know this is never going to happen. We are never going to be able to or willing to fund the entire amount required for the renewal of our existing asset portfolios. And the size of those portfolios continues to grow year by year. So the size of the funding problem continues to grow. And our infrastructure continues to degrade.

What’s the solution?

Well, when all the outcomes of the game point to annihilation, there is only one solution. We have, as the movie War Games tells us, to refuse to play the game. Or rather we need to change the game.

If we cannot or will not pay to continue our infrastructure the way it is, we either have to learn to do without it — which is inconceivable — or we seek alternatives that we can afford.

We must stop looking at the infrastructure deficit as a funding problem. It isn’t. It isn’t a lack of money so much as a lack of imagination. With all due deference to innovative infrastructure funding –which we need to do — we need to do more than just produce the same types of infrastructure with different funding sources. What we need to do is to develop fundamentally different infrastructure.

In the innovation session here at the summit, Patrick Lucey argued that with the infrastructure we have today we only get to use something liek five to 25 per cent of all the energy we produce the rest is lost in transmission. What if we could produce energy locally and use 100 per cent? What if by treating waste water on site we could extract the energy and reduce the amount we need to produce? And by recycling water, reduce the amount of water needed overall? These closed loop systems can be introduced by innovative design. And this is not futuristic dreaming, it’s already been done. And again, it’s already been done here in Canada.

And here is a sound clip from her address. It’s a little on the long side (13 minutes) but well worth a listen.

Prairie dog-NISKeynote by Paul Dechene

Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5'10'' tall and he was born in a place. He's not there now. He's sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It's "Girl From Ipanema", thanks for asking. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.

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  2. There will be an increasing number of failures in critical infrastructure such as dams, bridges, power plants, electrical grids, water, sewer and garbage disposal networks, databases, air traffic control systems, etc. The global lack of adequate disaster warnings and outdated technical systems, (e.g., port security, border violation, air traffic control, etc.) will take decades to correct unless a real tragedy or serious system failure with widespread economic consequences forces a greater sense of urgency. The earthquake in Haiti, the Katrina hurricane, the Gulf oil spill, floods in the Midwest, and the Japanese earthquake and tidal wave catastrophes demonstrate how unprepared we are.

    The average age of potable water systems in the United States is seventy-seven years, and every two minutes a major water main breaks causing significant property damage. Yearly, three-hundred thousand water-main failures are already causing water shortages, and the problem will only get worse. It will require hundreds of billions of dollars to replace—not just repair—the thousands of pipelines crisscrossing our continent, but many of our states and municipalities are nearly bankrupt. Just as serious, the United States is in a global race for innovation in this information age yet is last in internet speed and security among developed nations. That is just incredible.

    Infrastructure failures will compound the problems caused by an economic collapse but are also one means of employing workers to minimize a depression. When survival is at stake, people can be motivated to secure and improve their own towns and neighborhoods as well as the surrounding areas for a minimum wage. The problem at present is that the country is bankrupt and unless foreigners buy our debt, we can only pay in scrip. During recovery from a national disaster, workers are often paid in food and/or essential supplies so that government funds can be stretched. Idle labor conscripted for infrastructure repair is not paid the high wage scales of better times, but its employment must provide genuine humanitarian aid to stricken families.

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