Van Tang wants us to rethink infrastructure and the role it plays in our society.
Tang is the New Zealand and Pacific regional general manager for GHD, an international professional services company in the infrastructure sector.
To her there are three parts to rethinking infrastructure.
First, she says it means designing new infrastructure with the user at the front of mind. Second, it means getting behind more innovation in the sector and improving how companies in the sector collaborate to get projects moving faster.
The third part is rethinking the wider role that infrastructure plays. That's urgent. Governments around the world are pouring a lot of money into infrastructure.
Tang says one question facing governments is where to spend infrastructure money."Where can you extract the greatest value for the infrastructure spend? This is not only about cities, but also about our regions and communities.
"Infrastructure is a connector in so many ways. It connects communities and connects people. It improves our health system. It's there to improve the environment in a sustainable way. There is a whole range of things it can do."
Much of the new infrastructure spending is about catching up. Tang says years of unprecedented growth and increasing economic, environmental and social challenges have left us with congested, disconnected and degraded cities. It's not only cities. There's also an infrastructure deficit in regional New Zealand.
In New Zealand the deficit stems from decades of underinvestment. Yet, Tang says the problem is not unique to this country. She arrived to lead the New Zealand business early this year after leading GHD's South Australia operation. "To a certain extent infrastructure is not keeping up with growth. We see that here in New Zealand and in all parts of Australia, yet it's a general theme across the world."
Tang's colleague, Melbourne-based Phillip Bradley, is a member of GHD's international executive management group. Other members are in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK and the US. He is also the organisation's group chief financial officer. Bradley says infrastructure has become the world's go-to stimulus strategy. "That's because it creates jobs and leaves something meaningful for the long term."
He says this creates a problem for New Zealand: "One of the challenges you face is the competition for skills and resources. We're already seeing a substantial step up in the demand for specialists. It's happening in water, transport and other areas. It's already affecting the US and Australia.
"New Zealand can't wait because you may get left behind and the best resources in the world won't come."
Bradley says the good news is that New Zealand is a favoured place and many skilled people would love to be there right now.
Tang and Bradley want to see a rethink of infrastructure planning and procurement.
Tang says this means working with clients and the client's clients to imagine new possibilities. "To do this we need to have new conversations within the industry and the wider sector. Sometimes these conversations start too late, when we're already going down the path."
At the top of the list for rethinking planning and procurement is changing the approval process. Bradley says approvals are expensive around the world, especially in New Zealand, Australia and California.
"There is so much regulation. Regulation in itself is not a problem because it is the government trying to protect communities. Yet it takes time, often many months, for an application to be heard. Often the hearing or the actual approval process is less than a day's work. A lot of institutions don't have the workflow to get things moving faster."
A significant proportion of the cost of infrastructure lies in dealing with approvals.
Bradley says when we went into the Covid-19 lockdown, organisations managed to compress processes that would take months into a few days. They didn't wait around when it came to sending people home to work.
"This means we know we can change processes. Some of it is that you don't do things that are not important. Some of it is about being more efficient out of necessity. And some of it is about empowering more people to make decisions.
"You can do that with technology. In business we are driving the automation of processes that don't have people adding value. If we could do that with the approvals, say we could get a response within a week, that would take a lot of cost out of infrastructure."
The cost of the approval process is more than getting the paperwork done. A holdup means expensive resources such as cranes might be sitting unused which can cost thousands a day. The cost of approvals compounds as projects get larger. This matters now there are more billion-dollar projects in the pipeline.
Bradley says in Australia, GHD is working on four projects that are worth over $10 billion. Solving the problem is about mindset and leadership. Yet, Covid has given the industry a template that says these things can transform.
Tang says the way we fund infrastructure projects needs a rethink. Take local and central governments. They often face debt ceilings, so some creativity is needed. Last year Napier Port listed on the NZX. The company raised $234 million in exchange for 45 per cent of the equity. Tang says this is an innovative approach that created a partnership with stakeholders including iwi, financial partners and the community.
Bradley says overseas observers see Napier Port's listing as an innovative move. Selling assets to pay for infrastructure like road or rail is not new. Yet in this case, the community gets to keep its asset and has money for an extension of the asset.