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ASIA Panel Discussion - Future of Infrastructure

At the inaugural meeting of the Asia Sustainable Infrastructure Advisory (ASIA) Panel on 8 and 9 November 2021, the Future of Infrastructure was one of the three key themes discussed. The ASIA Panel members and invited industry leaders shared their insights on upcoming trends and challenges in a more sustainable future.

From L to R: Seth Tan (Moderator), Lord Robert Mair and Prof Cheong Koon Hean (ASIA Panel Members)

Infrastructure plays multiple roles such as facilitating growth, strengthening resilience and ensuring sustainability. Such infrastructure can enable societies to thrive amidst the inevitable shocks of climate change, demographic shifts, and economic disruptions. Against this outlook, Infrastructure Asia, the ASEAN Secretariat, and the Lead Implementing Body for Sustainable Infrastructure (“LIB-SI”) have co-organised a discussion on the Future of Infrastructure. This is one of three public discussions organised as part of the inaugural meeting of Asia Sustainable Infrastructure Advisory (“ASIA”) Panel. The discussion provided a platform for the infrastructure eco-system to discuss key infrastructure solutions and issues in pivoting ASEAN towards a sustainable and resilient future.

Five Defining Priorities for Post-Pandemic ASEAN

Sustainable infrastructure can play a key role in supporting ASEAN’s ambitious goals of a more livable environment. His Excellency Ir Awang Haji Amer Hishamuddin Zakaria, LIB-SI Chair, shared that LIB-SI is embarking on three initiatives outlined under the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025 (“MPAC 2025”). This includes creating a report on an “Assessment of Future Sustainable Infrastructure Trends and Priorities in a Post Pandemic ASEAN”, aimed at enhancing the ASEAN Member States’ (“AMS”) understanding of the Covid-19 impact and provide recommendations for promoting sustainable infrastructure. Through public and private stakeholder consultations, LIB-SI has found that AMS are seeking resilient and affordable sustainable infrastructure for a low-carbon economy.

Sharing the initial findings of the report, Mr Lim Chze Cheen, Director and Head of ASEAN Connectivity Division emphasized five key highlights of sustainable infrastructure in ASEAN:

  • Key Highlight 1: Macroeconomic Impact
    To promote socio-economic recovery and prepare for future crises, governments are planning infrastructure projects through the lenses of sustainability, resilience, inclusiveness, and long-term community benefits.
  • Key Highlight 2: Traction in Digital Infrastructure
    ASEAN’s digital economy is expected to grow exponentially by 2025, supported by changing demographics, rising affluence, technology adoption, and improvements in national broadband plans.
  • Key Highlight 3: Logistics and Supply
    Cold chain for agriculture, food, and vaccines are an increasingly important of focus for AMS. Financial and digital investments are critical to enhancing the resilience and efficiency of logistics and supply chain networks.
  • Key Highlight 4: Sustainability and Resilience
    Private and public sectors across AMS are more actively mobilising green, sustainability-linked and social bonds. AMS regard renewable energy, electrification and transition capital as the primary path to a low-carbon economy.
  • Key Highlight 5: Infrastructure Finance and Capacity Building
    AMS are actively seeking technical assistance, capacity building, and international infrastructure finance for project preparation and implementation in renewable energy deals.

His Excellency Dato Lim Jock Hoi, ASEAN Secretary-General, highlighted a window of opportunity to deliver smart and inclusive growth through sustainable infrastructure. In order to achieve this, innovation, better collaboration, and stronger multidisciplinary understanding are required. Finding new ways of thinking, designing, and managing infrastructure today are essential.

Invited discussants at the Future of Infrastructure public discussion, organised as part of the ASIA Panel meeting

Adopting a Systems Thinking Approach towards Infrastructure

Infrastructure must be designed with layers of integration to maximize the connectivity, functionality and sustainability of new and existing projects. Professor Cheong Koon Hean, Chairperson, Centre for Liveable Cities and Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities (Singapore University of Technology and Design), suggested four key principles for a systems thinking approach:

  • Key Principle 1: Synchronise Infrastructure with Long-Term Urban Planning 
    Coordinating infrastructure planning with development needs could minimise adhoc and siloed infrastructure decisions.
  • Key Principle 2: Think about a Circular Model
    Organising production, supply and consumption of materials in a ‘closed-loop’ could reduce the depletion of finite resources.
  • Key Principle 3: Adopt a Multi-Functional Approach
    Infrastructure projects could be layered with other functionalities, such as recreational activities.
  • Key Principle 4: Build Intelligent Infrastructure
    Digital intelligence could be leveraged to create safe, reliable and resource-efficient city management.

A smart infrastructure system is the key to unlocking more sustainable infrastructure. Lord Robert Mair, Head of the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction and Emeritus Professor of Civil Engineering at Cambridge University highlighted that smart infrastructure has both physical and digital elements responding to changes in the environment. The infrastructure sector can embrace digital transformation by incorporating advanced sensing and analytics into its whole project and life cycles to achieve 20-30% increased efficiency in maintenance and forecasting. Ms Isabel Chatterton, APAC Regional Industry Head (Infrastructure and Natural Resources), International Finance Corporation, concurs that integrated systems and infrastructure-as-a-service are gaining traction. In particular, the smart mobility sector is growing rapidly. By utilising data to predict passenger numbers and their intended routes, smart mobility can transform urban connectivity, while promoting the accessibility of shared public transport.

Catalyse Digital Infrastructure through Developing Critical Enablers

In the LIB-SI report, digital infrastructure has been identified as a high priority sector for facilitating intra- and inter-regional connectivity. That said, there needs to be a clear strategy for implementing digital infrastructure to ensure the interoperability of sensing, analytics, communication and storage.

To advance digital infrastructure in ASEAN, both public and private infrastructure planners must implement key enablers. This includes narrowing the digital divide created by the pandemic, ageing populations and socio-economic inequality. Digital infrastructure also requires skilled talent and can create local opportunities for upskilling. Chris Street, Executive Vice President (Market Development) of Princeton Digital, shared that his company is collaborating with SGTech and various Singapore universities to develop a hiring pipeline for data centres.

Crucially, Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) are catalysts for sustainable digital infrastructure in ASEAN by allocating and sharing appropriate levels of risk, financing, and strategy. Tong Yew Heng, CEO of Netlink Trust shared his company’s experience working synergistically with the Singapore Government to roll out digital plans such as the Next Gen NBN and InfoComm Media Plan 2025 to achieve 100% broadband penetration. Governments can play a critical role in generating demand for digital infrastructure in the market by encouraging services such as telehealth and e-payments.

Invited discussants at the Future of Infrastructure public discussion, organised as part of the ASIA Panel meeting

Scale Bankable Solutions to Connect Logistics and Supply Chain

Besides digital infrastructure, logistics and supply chain is another high-priority sector for ASEAN. This sector has traditionally been fragmented and dominated by small-medium enterprises (“SMEs”). To resolve connectivity issues, smart and sustainable infrastructure can similarly be applied. For example, under the ASEAN Smart Logistics Network, YCH Group has recently launched the Vietnam SuperPort in Hanoi, Vietnam. Dr Robert Yap, Executive Chairman of YCH Group, highlighted that the SuperPort integrates advanced supply chain operations with existing infrastructure to extend the port’s functions into the city, thus connecting manufacturing and e-commerce for supply chain fulfilment.

Scale is necessary to aggregate assets, attract quality developers, and generate economies of scale. In particular, cold chain infrastructure requires scalable, bankable solutions to ensure end-to-end visibility and integrity. Covid-19 has amplified the necessity of cold chain for food security, safety, and sustainability. In response, the Cambodian Government, Leonie Hill Capital and Infrastructure Asia are collaborating to advance farm-to-fork cold chain in Cambodia in a pilot test for a solar-powered cold storage unit for agriculture producers in Cambodia. Eventually, LHC aims to scale the solution locally to uplift the domestic economy.

Conclusion: A Future of Growth, Sustainability, and Resilience through Infrastructure

As highlighted by Minister Indranee Rajah, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Finance and National Development, “with more data, financing sources, and better use of the right technology, it is now possible to better plan, design, construct, operate, and maintain all types of infrastructure so they are more sustainable economically, more sustainable against future disruptions, and more sustainable against the existential risk of climate change." Ultimately, sustainable infrastructure is critical not only for the future, but also for resolving the problems of today. Sustainability is now a mainstay of conversations, investments, and projects in the infrastructure space.

This article is co-written by Lavan Thiru and Chan Shawn Kit, Infrastructure Asia. Special thanks to insights shared by:

  • Professor Cheong Koon Hean, Chair of Centre for Liveable Cities and Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities (Singapore University of Technology and Design)
  • Lord Robert Mair, Emeritus Sir Kirby Laing Professor of Civil Engineering, Department of Engineering, Cambridge University
  • Ms Isabel Chatterton, Asia Pacific Regional Industry Head, Infrastructure & Natural Resources, International Finance Corporation
  • Mr Tong Yew Heng, Chief Executive Officer, NetLink Trust
  • Mr Chris Street, Executive Vice President, Market Development, Princeton Digital Group
  • Mr Luca Tonello, Managing Director, Structured Finance Department Asia Pacific, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation
  • Mr Robert Yap, Executive Chairman, YCH Group
  • Mr Arun Kant,Chief Executive Officer, Leonie Hill Capital


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