Social expectations have been reset. New ways of working are rapidly being adopted. Governments find themselves with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform and reimagine the way they interact with and serve citizens and businesses. It has been several generations since public officials have been afforded such a wide writ to effect change. They should not be shy about using it.
The disruption to government services and social infrastructure experienced during 2020 demonstrated that radical and rapid change in service models is possible, but must also be thoughtful. Consider, for example, how most education systems rapidly went online, and how healthcare systems embraced virtual and distance care delivery - in both cases suddenly making digital infrastructure more critical to the quality of their service than buildings. Yet, at the same time, it quickly became apparent that many of those at the margins of society were being locked out of the new delivery channels.
This year, we expect to see government officials and infrastructure leaders assess the extent to which they can make some of these pandemic-driven changes to service delivery more permanent. Some will take this type of 'creative disruption' mindset further to see if they can go still further. Radical change is now possible and - in many cases - expected. The opportunities and the obligations afforded to government right now are immense.
These could range from rethinking current mobility strategies (are expensive networks of fixed assets really necessary?) to fundamental redesign of supply chains. We are also likely to see new partnerships form, involving public-private service delivery, that delve deep into areas once considered core government services [see Trend 10: Governments look for partners for more on this].
Data will be critical to imagining and implementing radical change. Governments and infrastructure planners will need to be clear about what communities ultimately want in terms of services and outcomes, not assets. And that will require them to have a clear view of their users' demand patterns and preferences - historic, current and future.
At the same time, infrastructure planners and owners must be willing to break free from the norms. Mobility services can be delivered through privately-operated platform apps; public facilities don’t need to serve just a single purpose; assets don’t need to be owned by the government for a service to be delivered.
One clear challenge will be around privacy. The mixed reception of COVID-19 'track and trace' apps illustrates how societal privacy concerns could impede radical change in infrastructure and government service delivery…or not, depending on the culture and jurisdiction. With governments now privy to a growing amount of citizen data, many are starting to take a much closer look at their national privacy controls. Expect privacy considerations to play a much greater role in infrastructure decision-making going forward.
In the emerging markets, multilateral development banks (MDBs) will also likely seize this opportunity to help drive change. Some will play a catalytic role in helping transform the sector. And their participation will help ensure change is achieved in a manner that is acceptable in the short term and sustainable in the long term.
This year expect to see governments and MDBs start to embrace their new-found ability to make radical change. Infrastructure owners and governments currently have an unprecedented opportunity to rethink how they serve their stakeholders. We hope these institutions are up to the task of driving the innovation and experimentation that will need to emerge over the coming year.
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