The Future of Infrastructure

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Chief EconomistWorld Bank Group
Knowledge Management Associate, NDC Partnership, Support UnitWorld Resources Institute (WRI)
26 November 2017
Event Updates

We are currently faced with some staggering unmet infrastructure needs:

  • 1.2 billion people live without electricity,
  • 663 million lack improved drinking water sources,
  • 2.4 billion lack improved sanitation facilities, and
  • 1 billion live more than 2 km from an all-weather road.

Affordable and reliable access to infrastructure is critical for development, with major implications for health, education, social mobility, firm productivity, climate change, energy, forests and biodiversity. 

But access alone is not enough. What we really need is sustainable infrastructure.

This includes, for instance, economic sustainability considerations like who is going to pay for the service and how to ensure affordable access; social sustainability considerations around how to ensure development benefits are shared across society; and environmental sustainability considerations of how to foster economic growth and development while ensuring that natural capital continues to provide the resources and environmental services on which our well-being relies. The single minded ‘build dirty and clean up after’ approach must be retired for good.    

All of this is further complicated by both a changing climate and changing climate policies. Infrastructure projects are long lived, and so need to account for uncertainty around future temperature, rainfall, sea levels, and policy environments. Placing sustainability firmly at the front and center of infrastructure development will result in greater economic, social and environmental resilience.

Sustainable infrastructure will provide the services and foundation for growth that are needed to reduce poverty and boost shared prosperity – but to get there, we must substantially increase financing for infrastructure in the developing world.

Public financing currently dominates infrastructure investments. Developing country governments invest about $1.5 trillion of public funds per year in infrastructure. However, public resources in developing countries, as well as donor funds, are currently constrained and subject to competing demands in addition to infrastructure.

Private finance clearly has a significant role to play in financing future infrastructure investments. Current data are scarce on overall private financing to infrastructure, but experts estimate it to be at most 20 percent of total investments, split between public private partnerships (PPPs) and private financing to public providers, like state owned enterprises and public utilities.

As governments around the world look to attract private sector financing, the World Bank, along with other MDBs, International Organizations, academics and technical experts are faced with the exceptional opportunity to shape the infrastructure agenda to place sustainability front and center.

For instance, earlier this year, the World Bank launched a new initiative around “Maximizing Finance for Development”. Along with other MBDs, we are working on new ways of filling financing gaps, including by:

  • Helping governments spend better, and
  • Bringing in new investments.

The approach helps countries "maximize their development resources by drawing on private financing and sustainable private sector solutions to provide value for money and meet the highest environmental, social, and fiscal responsibility standards, and reserve scarce public financing for those areas where private sector engagement is not optimal or available."

But as we pursue our goal of sustainable infrastructure for all, we are still faced with a number of knowledge gaps.  How do we define and measure sustainability? When trade-offs exist, how do we balance the social, environmental and economic aspects of sustainability?

These issues can and have been addressed from different scientific perspectives. However, despite a clear move of the academic community towards interdisciplinary projects, researchers working on specific aspects of the infrastructure agenda are not systematically interacting with each other.

This year the World Bank is hosting the Green Growth Knowledge Platform Annual Conference on the topic of Sustainable Infrastructure. The conference will bring together the best researchers in the field, both from the academic world and from more policy-oriented backgrounds, to take stock of recent advances and challenges around the infrastructure agenda.

Through close to 20 sessions, involving over 80 speakers, the conference will explore some of the most critical questions on how to design, promote and implement sustainable infrastructure. The full conference program, including papers, presentations and speaker bios can be found at:

Conference Sessions include:

  • Large Scale Renewables
  • Understanding Energy Needs
  • Transport and Low Carbon Pathways
  • Rural Electrification
  • Disaster Risk Management
  • Energy, Infrastructure and Low Carbon Pathways
  • Transport and Structural Transformation
  • The Belt and Road Initiative
  • Water Infrastructure and Sustainable Development
  • Regulations for Sustainable Infrastructure
  • Road, Deforestation and Agricultural Productivity
  • Adaptation and Long Term Decision Making
  • Assessing the Sustainability and Resource Requirements of Infrastructure Strategies
  • Mitigation and Long Term Decision Making Adaption and Flooding
  • Implementing Sustainable Infrastructure
  • Sustainable Finance and Investments

Each year the GGKP’s founding partners alternate the hosting of the Annual Conference. This year, the Fifth GGKP Annual Conference is hosted by the World Bank. The Sixth GGKP Annual Conference will be hosted by the OECD in Paris, France, in late 2018.


The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the GGKP or its Partners.