Sustainable infrastructure with World Wildlife Fund

Nicolas Price and Kate Newman | 07 September 2022 | 31:59

Podcast Transcript: Sustainable infrastructure with World Wildlife Fund

Maria Rampa: Hi I’m Maria Rampa and welcome to this episode of Engineering Reimagined. With 75 per cent of the infrastructure we need by 2050 yet to be built, we have a unique opportunity before us.

Organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund, who’ve long been campaigning for a nature-positive future, are using their knowledge and experience to create a Sustainable Infrastructure Strategic Framework to influence the way infrastructure is designed and delivered globally.

The WWF is working with governments and organisations to encourage the development of infrastructure that combines natural and built systems to enable people and the planet to thrive. In this episode of Engineering Reimagined, Aurecon Advisory Consultant Nicolas Price, speaks with the World Wildlife Fund’s Kate Newman, Vice President for Sustainable Infrastructure and Public Sector Initiatives, about the rollout of the framework and the more sustainable future it will help create.


Nicolas Price: Kate, thank you so much for being with us this morning.

Kate Newman: Thank you.

Nicolas Price: So today, the topic of the conversation is around sustainable infrastructure, which is a topic that is increasingly relevant to the world we're in, especially because of the permanent nature of infrastructure? The decisions we make now will have repercussions in the field for years to come. First, can you tell us a bit about what your role at the WWF is?

Kate Newman: Right. Yeah, I've been at WWF for three decades with various roles. And I'm finding this infrastructure role probably the most exciting and the most important, in terms of what you just described, how we need to get this right, because infrastructure is so permanent. And so, what I'm doing is leading the development of a sustainable infrastructure program of work for our United States office, but I'm also leading the Community of Practice on Sustainable Infrastructure across WWF. It is something that needs to be better organised, better designed, better managed for our future. So, it's super exciting to work on it.

Nicolas Price: Can you tell us a bit about what your journey through the WWF has been?

Kate Newman: I was in the Congo, I went there for the Peace Corps. But that was after having decided I wanted to be a wildlife manager and found out that I failed math, could never get through calculus, it wasn't going to happen. Oh well, so I took anthropology, loved it, went to Africa. And there I saw, wait a minute, conservation isn't always about animals. It's about how people interact with animals. And I was doing development work for the Peace Corps, then I stayed for another three years and worked for the United States Agency for International Development. So I ended up with a pretty exciting perspective on how people live, and how people live with nature in one of the most diverse places on earth. And came back and eventually was looking for work. And there was this job called Wildlands and Human Needs that was going on at WWF. So I learned conservation on the job. My initial project was to work with USAID funding in Africa to integrate biodiversity into international development across the continent, which led me into working on marine conservation and we helped six countries of the Coral Triangle come together and agree on co-management of their shared marine resources. And then I moved from that to looking at natural capital and ecosystem services as part of green economies, because that was becoming an important policy decision of governments. Which then leads to okay, if you're creating a good policy environment through a green economy approach, which values your natural assets as part of your natural economic wealth, the implications for that are really serious from three points of view - urbanisation, agriculture, and infrastructure. These are the three sectors of human behaviour that have the most impact on a country's natural wealth. So, WWF had been dealing with agriculture for a long while. And we were doing the conservation part with countries. But we hadn't really gotten our head around infrastructure, because of its diffuse nature. It was kind of like local pollution issues, you've got a pipe going into a river, you deal with that pipe locally with your local decision makers. WWF, as a whole, is generally looking for enabling broader decisions. But recently, there has been a recognition since the SDGs were announced that actually infrastructure is designed and usually invested in globally. So, there's actually many opportunities for systemic responses to promoting more sustainable infrastructure. And so that's how we've evolved into having it as a concerted program at WWF.

Nicolas Price: I saw that you're leading the rollout of the WWF network's new Sustainable Infrastructure Strategic Frameworks. Can you tell us more about what it's all about?

Kate Newman: So, we were lucky enough to partner with McKinsey’s sustainable infrastructure unit based in Washington DC and they were gracious enough to provide pro bono guidance to help WWF understand the business. So they helped us and came up with a suite of actions in three categories. One is global, what can we be doing to address the global infrastructure finance gap, which is happening and but also offers an opportunity. So, when that financing catches up, it should catch up and target sustainable options. And we have a little bit of time now because the financing gap is serious, but it will close. So, let's make sure that the target infrastructure of the future is meeting these sustainability guidelines established basically by the SDGs. The second one is a suite of actions you can take in a country related to procurement, data availability, modelling, bankable projects that are sustainable, and so on. And then the last one is we shouldn't forget that biodiversity is being crushed right now. And where there are cases happening now, we need to act in a concerted way and get out there and help.

Nicolas Price: And so, regarding this framework, what can you tell us about how it's being rolled out?

Kate Newman: So we actually spent this past year working on what we think of as the second biggest, impactful type of infrastructure, what we’ve ended up calling linear infrastructure, which is roads, rail, pipelines, fences. Anything that goes through a landscape will be affecting so many different ecosystems along the way, that it's a very critical type of infrastructure to address from a conservation point of view. And so, we took the framework and gathered folks working on linear infrastructure around the network from about 40 countries, to examine this particular type of infrastructure, using these guiding questions that we got from the framework to think through, what could we do about it? And can we come up with a position so that when we talk to the Minister of Transport, and say, it's got to be done differently. What exactly are we talking about? And where did we get that data from? And why are we so confident in that? Now we have the framework and what are the options on how to make it work.

Nicolas Price: I'm curious to know when I hear about the development of a strategic framework, how in both its design and then its implementation, you account for the fact that you're covering over 100 countries and the implementation of this has to take into account geopolitical realities and the fact that every single area is completely different, not just from a biodiversity and conservation point of view, but just from a pure geographic point of view. So, when you're rolling out a framework like this, how is that taken into account?

Kate Newman: The project lifecycle, it's pretty much the same no matter which type of significant infrastructure you’re developing. Pre-feasibility, feasibility, finance, design, construction, operations, decommissioning, disposal, it doesn't really matter what sector you're talking about, or what country you're talking about. That's generally how it works. So historically, we looked at the fact that if you got a dam in Brazil and a dam in Cambodia, we tend to fight such dams after constructions are already started, because that's the first time we heard about it. One of the things we learned is that we really have to move well upstream and understand how to influence the planning decisions from which infrastructure emerges. Again, that's not dissimilar. Anywhere you go. It's the planners, and they need ecological information, they need it to be trustworthy, and they need it to be about the future, like how is climate gonna affect ecosystems in a way that will undermine the services we're trying to provide via this infrastructure investment. Every piece of physical infrastructure on Earth relies on the earth behaving itself, and it's not. And so, what we're going to do is look for case studies to create a playbook of examples from anywhere in the world that can be applied in your circumstances for delivering your infrastructure the way you need it to exist so that it persists and provides that service for as long as you want it. And make up for the mistakes of the past and help us build back biodiversity. This is the big challenge which is really exciting. Biodiversity gains, UK is driving that, Europe is pushing for it, the US is just thinking about it. And that means everybody should be contributing to what we need to do to get nature back on its feet, not just climate. And so this is a super challenge at the moment.

Nicolas Price: So, from your perspective, how do we then incorporate biodiversity while investing in infrastructure development more broadly?

Kate Newman: Biodiversity, when I talk to engineers, and the investor community, is the mystery. It's a barrier to getting permitting done quickly, getting the loan out the door, and so on. So it tends to be dealt with downstream at the EIA stage, just get it done. Make sure it doesn't cause too much trouble. So we can get on with it. And I always use this term, the engineering handshake, it's like engineers design for cost and efficiency. And it tends to be straight. Straight is not how nature works. Permanent raised structures are the exact opposite about how nature functions, it needs to move, it needs to flow, genes need to go from here to there, water needs to go. And when we put up these impermeable structures, we're blocking nature and nature then bumps into it, and causes damage, flooding, landslides, and so on. It was so interesting, at the beginning of COVID, engineers were saying, hey, we're recognising now that we've been looking at infrastructure differently than we need to now, we're creating big things to meet the moment that are now completely useless. We have warehouses that are empty, airports that aren't being used, we need to be more modular, we need to be more flexible, we need to be more nimble, we need to be like nature. So you're allowing flows to happen, so that you can take advantage of these flows, like we used to take advantage of rivers for transportation. But we also need the animals to be able to flow across the landscape and their wild highways to be able to persist. So that doesn't require not having the infrastructure we need. It just requires re-examining how we build it. And with what and where. And if we do that, we can actually not only do no harm, but actually look for what is our contribution going to be to the global resurgence of biodiversity. There's all kinds of interesting stuff we're learning about what you can do to actually bring in more biodiversity than you had at the beginning. Target areas that are already delivering natural infrastructure, like mangroves are cheaper and better at mitigating storm damage than sea walls that only lasts 10 years. And then they're too low. They're made of crumbling concrete. So let's first secure the free stuff. Let's secure vegetated slopes that are holding back landslide debris and sediment from your rivers. But once you take that down then you happen to have a fire then you happen to have mass of rains. So let's rethink what ecosystem services we have, and what they're delivering and what it takes to manage them first, then look at what we need to supplement in terms of structures, and the structures can be built in a flexible manner, we have flexible bridges, the Europeans are building houses on water, to be able to go up and down and move. We can build out of materials that are permeable, we can build, especially for wildlife permeability into our linear infrastructure. So animals can go under or over. What the Dutch are doing is they have a whole national program of defragmentation, they've got so much water, so tightly managed, that it's actually sinking and not productive, and they're losing wildlife. So they're opening up their water, they're allowing animals, they've come up with these terrific modular openings, so you only need to close down a road for a half hour, you stick the thing in, pave it over. Now you have flow. So, there's lots of ingenuity going on to restore biodiversity flows. What we're finding is, it’s not built into the engineering schooling. And it's not in the codes, and it seems to cost more. So, if it's going to cost more, we're not going to bid on it, we're gonna go for the lowest bid. And we're not going to get sued. So we don't want to try anything innovative. And these are simple barriers to overcome. To foster this innovation.

Nicolas Price: An age-old question that has probably never been more pressing or relevant than it is now in light of climate change, is what do we leave for the next generation? What do we leave behind for our kids? So how do we incentivise those that are at the centre of it, asset owners, for example, to create more infrastructure that has a positive environmental impact?

Kate Newman: My main worry now is that we have only some blocks, or something called patches in the science community, of truly intact spaces on Earth, and those should be maintained for our own good to regulate the climate, because if you start messing with the Amazon the way we are now they have what they call the tipping point and when that happens, it turns into a savanna. And when that happens, the water doesn't get to Sao Paulo. Can we maintain and value these, what are perceived as non-economic producing spaces, they're just there, and find out a way to make everybody appreciate what they're delivering for us. But in a personal sense. I think it's about trying to see if you can grow more green around you somehow. You’re in Singapore, some of the most imaginative infrastructure experiments are going on in Singapore to deal with the lack of space. But one of the things that Singapore is doing more and more of is consolidating its green space, making it accessible, growing it, and recognising how a bit of green in everybody's life does more for you than an extra mile of cement. At Stanford, there are scientists working on the fact that if you spend 10 minutes in a forest, your brain will be so much healthier, that it should be a requirement for every test a student takes that all you need is 10 minutes looking up at trees, and you will do better on your test. There are many initiatives going on around the world, but this is something anybody can get involved in, is restoring their green for their own personal benefit, for their local communities benefit, for their kids. And if everybody does that, we're gonna see that restoration of biodiversity that we need. And maybe the engineering handshake won't be so straight, it can go around the last Rhino habitat on Earth.

Nicolas Price: Being in Singapore, the integration of biodiversity in its many forms in the urban landscape is very fascinating. And quite unlike, in many ways, the traditional model in our North American cities, I'm from Canada, and the downtown areas is very much residential or industrial, over and over and then green space, and it's very demarcated, there's not a lot of integration. Singapore has been extremely eye opening in terms of the possibilities that that offers and the benefits that it brings to everybody involved. It brings me to the topic of conservation planning, it's such a key topic in Asia, because infrastructure development is going at such a rapid pace, while at the same time you have these very sensitive areas that remain largely untouched. How do you how do you see Asia in terms of its implementation of conservation planning and broader infrastructure development? What do you see as some of the challenges and I guess the opportunities?

Kate Newman: I'm finding, much of the innovation is being seen in Asia, there's some countries that are very open to addressing their declines in biodiversity or nature, some by necessity, like Vietnam, climate change is going to impact that linear country in serious ways. And there's not that much space to go from the ocean inland when there's sea level rise. And so, they're very much interested in looking at how resilience of their ecosystems and adaptation is going to be integrated into their development pattern. If we recognise that our natural capital is part of our nation's wealth, for the good of our future and our children, how do we account for that so that as we develop, we don't undermine that wealth, because we're going to rely on it in future decades. But countries like Malaysia have also looked at how their linear infrastructure is affecting critical wildlife habitat for some of the world's most important megafauna like tigers, and forest elephants. And they've built some of their road systems to accommodate the passage of wildlife. India has a terrific guidance book that came out a few years ago from the Wildlife Institute of India on how to build roads to address wildlife. Every animal has a need, some will go through water and can swim through a culvert. Some hate water and need to go around, some are afraid to go over because they're too exposed. And they need what they call faunal furniture, one of my favourite terms, so if you have a tunnel under a road, and you have a scaredy cat animal, it needs to be able to run from this brush pile, to that rock, to get to the other side. And all these things per animal have to be calculated the size of the tunnel, the amount of faunal furniture. These are things you can do. And when you do, you're basically creating some harmony between the animals that need to live in that space and your need to go through that space, using science. And Mongolia has been working on the very terrible challenge of their antelope migration patterns, they call it nomadic migration patterns. How do you manage to get a train through that without hitting them all? And trains like to have fences because of people safety. So, they're right now working on ways to find areas that you could have without fences, because animals can go across train tracks, but they get caught up in the fences. And the government of Mongolia is developing guidance on how to do that, in partnership with experts. So there's these wonderful, really innovative advances in thinking through how to get your infrastructure while you're also achieving a stronger and more healthy environment.

Nicolas Price: When there is infrastructure development in areas where there are endangered species, what does that do to the ecosystem? How does that impact everything?

Kate Newman: One of my favourite examples is Nepal, if you can picture it's a big rectangle. The top is mountains, and a little strip at the bottom is flat, and that's where everybody lives. And it's getting to be too many people, and the people need to move up into the mountains and the government's really trying to think that through. But they want an east west transportation. Other problem with all those lowlands is that's exactly where all the wildlife lives. So we have the most spectacular mix of wild animals in the Chitwan area, rhinos, super rare on Earth, elephants, tigers. So they wanted to do this east west railroad. And the only thing they could think to do, is go straight through Chitwan. And the only design, with that engineering handshake, was to go by the main tourism centre of the park. And so they did three different feasibility studies at great expense, each trying to do a different line. And finally had the wherewithal, it took a lot of engagement and education and discussions, to do a final feasibility study about going around, what would it take? And that one won, it used all the same weighting criteria, but it won because when you're going through a park, that actually doesn't have a big population, you're serving no people, it's just a through point, from A to B, and nobody's getting anything out of it, except it's cheaper to build. If you go expensive, which include going up the mountain and then going around, there were about I don't remember how many towns now were served by railroad. And the economic benefit that came with that was huge. But that wasn't really your question, this was how you can make a decision when you see that if you put the road and bisect an area like that, what you end up doing is, animals respond to that in many different ways. Some will, they’ll see it and they'll be afraid, and they'll avoid it, so they'll never cross again, then there's others who kind of like it there and will hang on, on the verge, they won't cross over, but they'll live there. And others who will go and just try every time and get smashed. And there's these different reactions to by different types of animals, but the consequences, you're breaking populations of animals into smaller and smaller units. And so that disruption, or what we call fragmentation, is one of the biggest causes of population declines of any species, you're just reducing the amount of habitat they have access to, simply by putting up this permanent barrier, is dangerous and scary and wide, with no options available to go through or under or over. All kinds of things are being tried to enable people to thrive. With the animals and the wildlife and the ecosystem services they expect to have to thrive. It's the engineering challenge of the future.Nicolas Price: I like the way that that was wrapped up. You talked a bit about that project in Nepal, and how it ended up benefiting economically, from a biodiversity perspective, how it was pretty much a win-win solution in the end, which I find oftentimes in the public discourse about infrastructure development, in many forms. It feels like there's always a bit of a seesaw battle between both of these interests. How do you think we can incentivise both the public and the private sectors to not only reach that balance, but also maintain it between these two seemingly conflicting interests?

What we're looking at is helping our partners de-risk. And one of the places to de-risk is these environmental aspects of asset ownership and management and helping develop assets that are going to deliver services, but actually deliver other benefits. There's this whole perception that everything we talk about must be extra costs, it's not really, most of the time it's about 1% of a big piece of infrastructure. But it's always that 1%, that will get dropped. Because it seems to be an extra. How do we sell this as not an extra but an essential for the long-term viability of that asset? You don't want landslides to undermine it, you don't want to find there's nothing under your road because you built too close to a coastline that you removed all the wetlands. And now there's nowhere for the water to go. Stuff like that happens all the time. That's about understanding the whole ecosystem, not just your right of way. So we're trying to offer a view of your long-term asset, where you're going to still have a healthy functional asset in 50 years, if you pay attention to how the ecosystem interacts with your asset. And you get involved in protecting that. So that it continues to provide that service to your asset, that dependency of your asset on that service is forever, if it's managed well.

Nicolas Price: Over the world, there are many places where you do end up building or developing something, there already are landowners, communities who live there. How do you see some of the best practices in terms of their involvement and consultations with them for a positive outcome of an infrastructure development project?

Kate Newman: It's so fundamental, there are so few places on Earth where there's large enough patches of nature that's still functioning, most of those places are inhabited by indigenous peoples and local communities who have learned to live in the cycle of nature as it requires and benefit from that cycle. And their future in these spaces is threatened. And quickest way you can threaten their future in such a space is by putting in a single road. In the Amazon, most deforestation happens within five kilometres of a road as it's put in. And then from there, it goes down. But the halo effect as they call it, widens over time. And that means all the people that had been living symbiotically with nature, are now trying to find another way to live or experiencing other kinds of people moving in with other ways of living. So their future is vastly undermined. And it's hard to find significant infrastructure projects that wouldn't have that impact. There's one case in Colombia, where a new road had to be built, because the last one was just a killer road, it went on the side of the mountain and people just died all the time. And everybody agreed that it had to change. And instead of just calling the engineers in and deciding, we got involved with the indigenous communities, indigenous peoples groups that we work with there, in being a part of a dialogue design process. If we go here, what would happen, if the road goes there, what would happen? How big should the road be? What if we stayed in the same place? And they were involved, and then the Inter-American Development Bank got involved in supporting the process, and they took the time to actually negotiate where the trade-offs would have the least negative impact on the communities while maintaining forest and delivering a safer road. The consequences of that process was that the Government of Colombia, in partnership between the Ministry of Transportation and the Ministry of Environment and WWF and a local NGO, the Conservation Foundation of Columbia, over these past sort of five years have developed what they call the green road infrastructure guidelines, which basically start from community needs, community engagement and voices, and develops the options for delivering ecologically and socially accepted roads, through the Amazon specifically. And these road infrastructure guidelines were just released by the last president this past spring, and now they're looking at putting in parts of the guidelines into the regulatory system so that it becomes a norm. And it all started with that recognition that the voices of the people need to be there early, need to be actually listened to, as they call it, meaningful stakeholder engagement. And done respectfully. And the other thing that IDB did at the same time was they got Harvard's Zofnass School of sustainable infrastructure design to help them with understanding why roads, big projects constantly get in trouble. And they had 200 projects they examined that had had some sort of conflict across Latin America. And only 20% of all those projects did not have an environment or a social crisis that led to stoppages, slowdowns, cancellations, and all the problems that engineers and builders and owners hate. All these projects had these things, and the common denominators were not enough early, upstream meaningful engagement with the local communities. So you got your riots, you got your slowdowns, you got all these problems. And so, the moral of that story was that inclusive upstream planning, with the communities and stakeholders needs the time to be taken, and the ears to be open, to be able to get that input to avoid costly, they calculated how much money was lost through all those cases, billions and billions. Local people are the stewards of the environment. They live in harmony with the environment in a way where the environment is still productive. And not only they but others benefit from it. We don't need the infrastructure to undermine that. So together with them, you find better outcomes.

Nicolas Price: Well, Kate, thank you so much for coming on today. We really appreciate you taking the time.

Kate Newman: Thank you. That was fun. I'm really pleased to have this opportunity to talk about our perspective on how engineers and the conservationists of the world can collaborate to do good.

Nicolas Price: We will unite.


Maria Rampa: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Engineering Reimagined. What a fascinating insight into infrastructure design and planning and how the decisions we make now, can have a positive impact on our environment.

If you enjoyed this episode, hit subscribe on Apple, Google Podcasts or Spotify and don’t forget to follow Aurecon on your favourite social media platform to stay up to date and join the conversation. Until next time, thanks for listening.

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Kate Newman on the Sustainable Infrastructure Strategic Framework

With 75 per cent of the infrastructure we need by 2050 yet to be built, we have a unique opportunity before us.

Given the permanency of infrastructure, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has created a Sustainable Infrastructure Strategic Framework, as a tool to influence biodiverse and climate positive decision-making for infrastructure design and development globally.

WWF Vice President for Sustainable Infrastructure and Public Sector Initiatives, Kate Newman, says: “Every piece of physical infrastructure on Earth relies on the earth behaving itself, and it's not. So, what we're going to do is look for case studies to create a playbook of examples from anywhere in the world that can be applied in your circumstances for delivering your infrastructure the way you need it to exist so that it persists and provides that service for as long as you want it. As well as make up for the mistakes of the past and help us build back biodiversity.”

In this episode of Engineering Reimagined Aurecon Advisory Consultant Nicolas Price, spoke with WWF’s Kate Newman about the rollout of the sustainability framework and the greener future it will help create.

Meet our guests

Learn more about Nicolas Price and Kate Newman.
Nicolas Price, Advisory Consultant, Aurecon

Nicolas Price

Advisory Consultant, Aurecon

Based in Singapore since 2021, Nicolas has a background in management consulting and is passionate about serving clients and crafting impactful solutions to tackle complex business challenges. His professional experience includes due diligence, economic analysis and expenditure forecasting, risk advisory, strategic planning and asset portfolio optimisation, data management, and digital support for large scale projects.

Kate Newman, Vice President Sustainable Infrastructure and Public Sector Initiatives, World Wildlife Fund

Kate Newman

Vice President Sustainable Infrastructure and Public Sector Initiatives, World Wildlife Fund

Kate specialises in policy development and conservation planning in support of nature-positive infrastructure. For over 30 years with WWF, Kate has worked with colleagues around the world to integrate conservation science and principles into socio-economic development through terrestrial and marine natural capital and ecoregion planning, sustainable finance, green/blue economy policies, community-based conservation, and protected area management.

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