Making sense of the infrastructure slush bucket

As we count down to the federal election, the major parties have been making infrastructure announcements worth billions of dollars. From freeways and fast trains to local swimming pools, the announcements have come thick and fast.

And once again, the NBN is among them.

Almost 10 years after it was established, Australia’s biggest ever infrastructure spend ($49 billion) is still not hitting the mark. Policy changes and the increase in streaming and gaming means Australia’s internet is at risk of collapse at peak hours and satisfaction rates are painfully low. The NBN was out of date before it was even finished.

‘The New Infrastructure: using design thinking to build better communities’ is a Portable report that looks at how we can improve the user experience and value of infrastructure. It includes recommendations and prototypes that could help avert another NBN.

The recommendations include taking minimum viable product approach that would allow ideas to be tested on a small scale, quickly and cheaply. It requires us to understand the needs of users and respond directly to those needs, rather than any preconceived ideas or solutions. This means urban planners, engineers, architects and policymakers need to see the world through the eyes of end users. Testing must happen early and often.

We also recommend the use of data driven design, using qualitative and quantitative data to inform decisions. This would provide high level user insights, counter the selective (and political) manipulation of statistics and help ensure end user satisfaction.

The report also looks at community dissatisfaction with consultation processes. Governments always say consultation has happened, but communities often regard them as cynical tick-a-box exercises. There is a sense that community feedback will have little impact and any concerns will be ignored in the rush to score quick-wins.

As well as a lack of transparency and community engagement, the result of poor consultation and low community involvement is a potential failure of innovation and creativity. We look at the future of customer-led initiatives, the potential of microfinancing arrangements, multiple user groups sharing infrastructure and the importance of cultural infrastructure in building social cohesion.

Australia’s population is expected to grow to 30.5 million in 2031. This is increasing demand for public transport, water and electricity infrastructure while also putting more pressure on schools, hospitals… and data. Designing policy and services using an approach that focuses on real people can make a difference.


Portable’s report ‘The New Infrastructure: using design thinking to build better communities’ examines how design can improve the user experience of our infrastructure to improve the way we work, live and play. Get a copy of ‘The New Infrastructure’ here.

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