In a remarkable feat of engineering earlier this month, Glasgow Airport runway was resurfaced with new high-tech material, all at night while Scotland slept.
This was in sharp contrast with the decision by Nigeria to close down Abuja Airport for repairs to its runway. Passengers fly to the northern city of Kaduna from where they are transported 190km by rail or in guarded buses to the federal capital and second busiest airport.
The two examples are not about differences between the two countries’ stages of economic development but really the difference between a batch and continuous approach to infrastructure management. It is not uncommon for nations to wait until there is total or near collapse before decisions are made to finance critical infrastructure.
In the US, for example, political wrangling has put off decisions to renew the nation’s infrastructure for decades. Inadequate investment in maintenance has resulted in the degradation of existing facilities, requiring many of them to be totally replaced. The high costs of starting afresh are often associated with paying for construction and deferring maintenance costs into the future.
A large part of the problem is reliance on procurement procedures that focus on the awarding contracts to the lowest bidder. To win in the competition construction firms looks for places to trim their budgets. Maintenance is usually an easy target for cuts. In many cases, maintenance is subjected to separate contracts.
There are many hidden costs associated with batch infrastructure model. In the case of Abuja, for example, additional costs are likely to be incurred in foregone businesses and people defer travel to the country. Locally, the aviation minister has had to relocate his office to Kaduna for the period of the repairs. Other unintended consequences include the need to control helicopter movement between the two cities.
The batch model is not limited to transportation. It is a common practice that often results in construction without adequate planning for sourcing spare parts for vital equipment. In fields like water and energy supply African government local offices often serve as warehouses for obsolete pumps and generators.
Large projects are often accused of fostering corruption. This may be true but the problem is worsened by the use of batch models that often result in the supply of faulty equipment. This is often because the separation between construction and maintenance eliminates the need to agree on technical specifications for the supply of spare parts.
The outcome has been a continent that is dotted with decaying infrastructure and conspicuous white elephants. Some of the contracts on the supply of equipment restrict local firms from sharing technical information on plants until a certain period after they start operating. This makes it hard to identify local or low-cost sources of spare parts.
The need to rethink procurement rules has become urgent due to the changing climate. More technical consideration needs to be given to the need to build infrastructure that can withstand shifts in rainfall, temperature, sediment transportation and humidity. Hydro-power dams, for example, face great uncertainties from projected shifts in rainfall. Coastal infrastructure projects are also likely to be affected by sea level rise and need to use different design criteria that incorporate the risks of corrosion and other ecological impacts.
Other design criteria might include the use of modular systems that allow for ease of replacement.
The World Bank has projected that the continent will need to invest US$93 billion annually over the next decade to meet its economic needs, of which a third will be for maintenance. Much of the infrastructure construction in Africa today is done by Chinese firms. It is unclear whether how many of such projects include sufficient long-term maintenance plans. The failure to incorporate such plans could result in monumental failures that could tarnish the image of Africa-China cooperation.
One way to shift from a batch to a continuous is to explicitly incorporate technical knowledge generation into the initial project design. This can be done by either adding research facilities onto infrastructure projects or linking them to existing institutes and engineering schools in national universities.
A common argument used against such linkages is that local universities lack the capacity to contribute to such projects. The real issue is that procurement procedures do not provide for the incremental acquisition of competence and as a result tend to favor foreign firms.
But where local people are included in contracts they usually include experts from universities.
Though not unusual, the practice of adding technical units to infrastructure projects involves different procurement procedures that emphasize industrial technological learning. When South Korea built its first high-speed rail it also created the Korea Railroad Research Institute in 1996.Over its short period of existence, the institute has become a world leader in transportation science and technology.
We can draw a vital lesson from nature when considering the value of technical knowledge in continuous infrastructure management. Organisms do not wait until their dying moments to get into the flurry of seeding the maintenance of their species. But unlike organisms that carry their enabling information in their DNA, physical infrastructure draws its technical support from associated knowledge-based institutions such as universities and research institutes. To deprive them of such support is condemn them to early extinction.
The same logic applies to agriculture whose survival is heavily dependent on continuous maintenance and improvement. If the world agricultural system stopped doing maintenance breeding, which involves improving the adaptive capacity to respond to change, cereal production would collapse in about a decade. In fact, improvements in cereal yields are largely a result of maintenance breeding.
Nigeria probably wouldn’t have its current air transportation problem if it had added a technical institute or created links with engineering schools to support continuous infrastructure management. At the very least the airport would have served as teaching facility for transportation infrastructure experts and an incubator for engineering firms.
Such anticipatory investments should become part of new procurement standards. This is likely to reduce long-term infrastructure costs. The batch infrastructure management model is not just more costly in the long-run, it is unsuited to a world made more uncertain by changes in climate.