Red & Black interviews the CEO of Infrastructure Victoria - Part 2

Michel Masson is the CEO of Infrastructure Victoria, the government body charged with formulating a 30 year strategy for Victoria’s infrastructure. This is the second part of the two part Red+Black Architect interview.

If you missed part 1, click here.

Red+Black Architect – While selecting the right piece of infrastructure to build at the right time is critical, it’s equally critical to the liveability of the state to ensure that the design quality of the proposed infrastructure is of a very high standard? How is Infrastructure Victoria addressing this complex issue of the design quality?

Michel Masson – Let’s be clear as to what Infrastructure Victoria stands for. We are responsible for the strategic planning only. We’re not touching on the procurement. We’re not touching on the delivery. Clearly, we’re not here to revisit designs and look at those when we identify projects. That’s at a later stage. Having said that, we do acknowledge the importance of design in getting the right outcome. We are very focused on being outcome oriented, rather than focused on an output.

With that in mind, we’ve looked at a couple of ideas that are about improving design standards.

We are looking at universal design principles to provide accessibility for people with mobility challenges, and how we can push that further.  We’ve looked also at active design as a way to promote more active lifestyles using infrastructure, such as putting cycling and pedestrian pathways into new developments.

We’re looking at design in relation to social housing.  We’re also looking at design around cyber security. Infrastructure will have more and more technology embedded into it so that needs to be taken into account.

R+BA – Have you been consulting with the Office of the Victorian Government Architect on how to achieve design quality in the process of delivering infrastructure?

MM – You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve had already exchanges with Victorian Government Architect Jill Garner in order to have exactly that discussion. We’ve highlighted a couple of areas where indeed our role and their involvement into the strategy could actually be reinforced to ensure design is considered.

R+BA – From the projects that made it into the options paper, are there any that you found particularly surprising either in perhaps because they initially sounded far-fetched but have since shown promise or perhaps a project that was assumed to be a very important part that actually is not particularly viable?

MM – It won’t come as a surprise that when you table 236 options in a very agnostic way, of course, some catch the attention of the public more than some others. Infrastructure Victoria is an evidence-based organisation. We are totally agnostic. We tabled those and we’re very interested to get the feedback from the public.

Of course, when the public cast their eyes on recycling water for drinking purposes, or the mobile police stations for instance, this is very good news for us because we certainly don’t want to shy away from controversial ideas.

Our process is not a popularity contest. We clearly want to engage with the community and say, “We’re here to plan for the next 30 years. Clearly the next 30 years won’t be anything like the past 30 years. Let’s think outside of the box.”

Business-as-usual won’t cut it when it comes to planning for the next 30 years when you’ve got so many new people coming and settling in Melbourne and you’ve got technology changing so rapidly. We need to think differently when it comes to water, when it comes to education, when it comes to transport. Of course, there are some far-fetched ideas but we’re talking about the future so let’s unleash our imaginations and also look at what worked in the rest of the world.

R+BA – How does Infrastructure Victoria assess projects that cross state borders, for example, the high-speed rail on the Eastern Seaboard?

MM – There is a close collaboration between Infrastructure Australia, Building Queensland, Infrastructure New South Wales, Infrastructure Victoria and Infrastructure Tasmania.

We meet on a regular basis in order to exchange information on who is working on what. We’re not here to reinvent the wheel in our silos, far from it. The more we collaborate, the more we share what we are working on, the better we cross-pollinate our ideas.

Of course, in the process of exchanging ideas and cross-pollinating, we discuss national projects like high-speed rail or inland rail in order to confirm our thinking and come up with a consistent approach.

R+BA – With the way technology is advancing rapidly, is the 30-year goal a realistic goal or will it be virtually obsolete within a decade? How do you deal with that rapidly changing technology?

MM – I think that the beauty of having a 30-year plan is that it’s sufficiently far off in order to be able to make some good assumptions as to how we see the future. Clearly we don’t have a crystal ball. Ten years ago, nobody knew that we would have these mobile phones in our pockets and how much it would revolutionise our lives.

Having said that just because we haven’t got a crystal ball doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plan. This is the whole essence of planning.

It is important to keep in mind that we’re going to refresh our strategy every 3-5 years. This is not a one-off exercise and then we’ve got to live with it. If that were the case, you would be absolutely right, it would be a pointless exercise.

Two things to keep in mind: one, we’re very mindful that technological advances will make a big impact in how we build, how we operate and how we maintain infrastructure. That’s why we got technology at the forefront what we are looking at. We’ve secured the help of the former chief innovation officer from Google to help us think about the “known unknowns” but also the “unknown unknowns”.

We also need to be very clear in identifying what are the potential disruptors that we need to monitor the impact of. It’s very clear that we can already see the impact of big data and the internet on things. We can see how sensors are already revolutionising water use, for instance, or the energy sector.

I’ll finish off by saying that the last big elephant in the room that we are working on in terms of modernisation is driverless cars. Is this a blessing or is this a curse? What are the changes of the paradigm that we should be looking at in order to leverage upon this and all of the implications that this will have.

R+BA – Yes. It’s very hard to get your head around exactly how that will play out. It could go two ways, in terms of rapidly increasing the amount of cars on the roads because we’ve got all of these cars driving themselves and running errands for people or perhaps it could reduce the numbers of cars, particularly households currently with two cars.

MM – Even if you’ve got less cars overall, you will have more kilometres being driven. It comes back to that question of what is the outcome we want to achieve. Driverless cars also cast a light also on the concept of ownership. With driverless cars, if we stick to the concept of ownership of a car, it will bring different outcomes than if we look at the driverless cars in a new paradigm of non-ownership.

R+BA – Barcelona recently wired a lot of their streets to prepare themselves for an innovation of these driverless cars. Is that something that’s in the draft options report, the idea of WiFi on the street everywhere, facilitating that sort of future outcome?

MM – We certainly are in the process of identifying what are the technology changes that we need to facilitate in order to enable the driverless cars to flourish in the future.

What do we need to start looking at in order to ensure that Victoria is ready for what is to come. It’s not a question of if that’s going to come. It’s a question of how fast and how prepared we are. A lot has got to do with policies and regulations currently in place that need to be looked at in order to ensure that Victoria is ready for it.

R+BA – Absolutely. I can imagine the law would be one of the areas that would need to change, who’s responsible for accidents and so forth.

Are there any aspects of Infrastructure Victoria’s work that have been overlooked or under reported in the media … Is there a message that you would like to put out there that sometimes gets lost amongst the East West Link and other controversial topics?

MM – Well, one of the key characteristics of the 30-year strategy is to cover the whole state, meaning that regional Victoria is equally as important as metropolitan Melbourne. We are very eager to have regional Victorians express their views throughout the consultation so that we are sure that what we table to Parliament reflects their views and their contribution, not just what is best for Melbourne.

The other thing which has probably been overlooked is our guiding principle of land use planning being integrated with the infrastructure planning. We’re very keen to look at ways of bridging that gap. Of course, we are working in close collaboration with the Melbourne Planning Authority. The refreshed Plan Melbourne will be an input into our strategy together with the regional growth plans. Looking at the next 30 years, I think one of the most fundamental changes that we can bring is better integration between infrastructure and land use planning.

The last thing that I’ll say is that we are very ambitious in the final strategy we plan to table at year end, because strategy without execution is nothing. We’re very keen to not only provide a pipeline of strategic recommendations, but for the final strategy to be workable. It needs to be an input to the community, to business, to the local and state governments.

We’re very keen to identify in parallel to our strategic recommendations, what are the tactical next steps? What is the first actionable item that we should be starting to do in order to see a recommendation being implemented?

It may be as an example that we plan for significant capital expenditure, say for a road for instance in 10 or 15 years. Even though you won’t need to build it for 10 or 15 years, we would recommend to pass the relevant legislation in the first 18 months to preserve the corridors. That I think will reposition the true essence of planning into the state of Victoria.

R+BA – Thank you very much for your time

Michael Smith is a director of Atelier Red + Black.  This article was originally published on the Red + Black architect blog.

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