What the choices might look like


Decision makers must use strategic foresight to better manage uncertainty, upheaval and inevitable change

Southern African countries are under a crushing burden caused by a confluence of factors. These include the unprecedented growth in the number of young people, the remarkable rapidity of urbanization and the rise of informal settlements in urban centres.

The physical infrastructure needed to meet these challenges requires exceptional solutions. But these call for alternative approaches. This includes close collaboration between Member States and the private sector. And developing a strong relationship between economic and social infrastructure, on the one hand, and the underlying policy framework that guides decisions, on the other.

Research by the South African Institute of International Affairs highlights scenario options for the future of infrastructure in the region. And issues advice on how to avoid unwanted options.

Infrastructure projects take a long time to materialize, often in the order of one or two decades. This introduces a whole series of uncertainties. To better navigate uncertainty, upheaval and inevitable change, decision-makers must use strategic foresight. It is an approach that helps develop alternative futures and options that better anticipate and prepare for new opportunities and challenges. Strategic foresight stimulates new thinking about the best policies to address long-term opportunities and challenges through proactive and adaptive policy innovation.

Any infrastructure plan requires extensive stress testing to determine its viability against a range of future scenarios. Foresight builds the ability to learn about change as quickly as possible and to be flexible enough to respond to that change creatively and effectively.

The scenarios present potential infrastructure pathways. Each is briefly unpacked into four quadrants. These are regenerative infrastructure, mining infrastructure, fossil fanatics and upside down construction.

Regenerative infrastructure

In this scenario, political decision-making creates regional certainty in climate policy. This in turn leads to the effective implementation of green infrastructure developments. Governments and the private sector are partnering on projects aimed at inclusive, low-carbon and green alternatives that adapt to changing socio-economic conditions.

The relationship between government, academia and the private sector creates an interactive system to promote green and more efficient technologies. This in turn accelerates efforts to combat climate change.

The intelligent infrastructure developed better meets the needs of society. In effect, the services are “always on”. And infrastructure is only used when needed to eliminate waste.

High-tech initiatives provide modern infrastructure. These mitigate the effects of climate change. New technology-based infrastructure assets support infrastructure, manufacturing and services in a region that is more integrated.

At the same time, national and international private funding is flowing in. This allows an influx of investment. At the same time, the recognition of distinct but mutually reinforcing and overlapping types of infrastructure alleviates the budgetary constraints faced by governments.

Coordinated efforts of Ministries of Finance and national and local governments integrate the management of non-tariff barriers. This includes customs, physical and administrative infrastructure.

Governments are recognizing the importance of regional trade and are beginning to break down barriers.

Fossil fanatics

In this scenario, the infrastructure developments of the countries of the region remain unchanged.

Non-tariff barriers remain stubbornly in place. Regional trade suffers from inadequate infrastructure and bureaucratic border processes. More and more local and international businesses are closing due to low demand. Member States and citizens are on their own. And many member states are adopting protectionist policies to prevent economic refugees from entering pockets of growth with employment potential.

A protectionist hobo mentality is adopted. It is a defensive policy aimed at protecting a country’s businesses from foreign competition. Customs duties and quotas are imposed on imported goods and services. Short-sighted politicians try to develop and foster national industries. But capacity constraints reinforce regional poverty.

Politicians collude with corrupt individuals and sophisticated organizations to create patronage networks by selling access to state infrastructure development. Democracies and regional institutions are weakened by corrupt rackets and strong political will for corrupt activities.

The illusion of steps towards sustainable and resilient infrastructure is created. But the only goal is to secure patronage networks. Infrastructure assets are in the hands of shadow state actors.

Operating infrastructure

In this scenario, levels of policy reform and political will are low. This leaves it up to the private sector and citizens to develop decentralized infrastructure solutions. Examples include green, off-grid energy and new water and sanitation technology models.

The private sector is piloting practical models to reach remote townships and rural areas. For their part, governments resist development because the cost of last-mile solutions is prohibitive.

Citizens flock to flourishing regions where corporations become quasi-state actors.

New innovations, products and models are being rolled out in isolation by climate-conscious oligarchs. There is no overarching policy, regulatory governance and institutional frameworks. The result is the creation of monopolies.

New technological developments are helping to improve the design of infrastructure assets. But mergers and acquisitions systems do not exist because they are in the hands of oligarchs. These individuals hold more political power than many individual countries. Unencumbered oligarchs take de facto control of infrastructure assets due to weak regional and national institutional direction and governance.

Build upside down

In this scenario, fossil fuel infrastructure owners refuse to relinquish control. This is happening despite government efforts to transform through policy reform. There is no adoption of practical models to develop climate-resilient infrastructure that will reach remote townships and rural areas. This is partly due to prohibitive costs.

Governments are promoting innovative, green and off-grid energy, water and sanitation. But citizens and private actors consider them too expensive. The result is increased inequality.

Education systems emphasize old curricular approaches. The supply of jobs and skills from the old economy is significant. But employers don’t need traditional skills. This leads to massive unemployment.

Various developments are tipping the scales towards robotics. Corporations employ robots, leaving governments with a useless class of workers.

Next steps

To realize the preferable scenarios and divert those that are not, member states should start by focusing on greater regional interconnection and collaboration. And on improving their ability to discover new opportunities for innovation, resilience and preparedness for future global shocks.

Education systems should implement new economy skills development. Examples include digital modalities, green skills associated with creativity, complex problem solving, people management and critical thinking.

Regional trade and value chains should be encouraged. The African Continental Free Trade Area presents a unique opportunity for intra-regional collaboration. In particular, to eliminate non-tariff barriers.

There should also be more collaboration between the regional body’s secretariat and member state ministries, universities and the private sector.

Member States should reverse the trend away from the self-interest of leaders and national protectionism. They should use their collective economic power to turn nature into a network of infrastructure assets to create more cooperative and resilient economies.

It will change the narrative of African states that depend on foreign investment and financial aid when the opportunity costs outweigh the long-term economic value.

Lesley Wentworth, Chief Executive, University of KwaZulu-Natal and Deon Cloete, SAIIA Futures Program Manager, South African Institute of International Affairs

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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