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Infrastructures to drive competitiveness, resilience and innovation

Venice, 30/09/2022, Aspen Seminars for Leaders

Large-scale events are undoubtedly an opportunity to plan medium to long-term infrastructure investments. Similarly, the PNRR can be viewed as a sort of large-scale event ready to reap the benefits of Italy’s experience hosting past events, with keen attention to both positive and negative results.

The life of an infrastructure consists of various equally important phases that range from design and implementation to sustainable management. This latter is an element that must be built into the project from the start and concerns its maintenance as well as its eventual re-purposing and social aims. Dialogue and cooperation between public and private actors and institutional continuity are decisive to the success of any undertaking.

EXPO 2015 and MIND together represent a virtuous example of cooperation between institutions and of strategic long-range vision. Plans for the 2026 Milan-Cortina Olympics and Rome’s candidacy for EXPO 2030 are marked by the same systemic and sustainable development intensions.

It was pointed out that, in general, in the process of taking on such strategic projects, an efficient structural approach less bound to emergency and ad hoc procedures remains of primary importance. In the case of the PNRR, Italy has been able to confront the challenges even despite a lack of planning, skills and coordination at local, regional and centralized levels. The PNRR is an opportunity to systematically and methodically steer investments.

The overall opinion is that it is too late to renegotiate the PNRR at European level. Yet, it was also pointed out that the plan had been for the private sector to make a series of investments that today are no longer necessarily achievable due unforeseen developments such as the spike in raw materials costs and difficulty accessing credit, effects that an extension of the PNRR deadline could alleviate.

Nevertheless, the same strategic approach must apply not only to the PNRR but to all, including ordinary, investments. All calls for tender must include infrastructures’ future regulatory and remunerative elements so as to resolve uncertainties regarding the project’s design, investment and financial sustainability. Italy is moving in the right direction; a total of 300 billion euro in infrastructure investments is planned for the next 12 years, 220 billion of which has already been allocated, including 106 over the last year and a half (of which 61 billion of the PNRR).

In order to multiply the positive effects of public undertakings it is necessary to attract both private and international investments. This can be accomplished by introducing ex-ante and ex-post investment valuation mechanisms, revising PPP rules, aligning with international best practices and streamlining local public administration procedures.

Cities play an important role in the transformation of the country’s infrastructures, particularly regarding mobility and territorial upgrade. Urban areas are the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, waste and energy consumption. Thus, cities are where the main difficulties of the ecological transition are concentrated, yet at the same time can serve as laboratories for social experimentation. When it comes to the growing complexity, innovation remains the common denominator to any and all undertakings. The link between digital and physical infrastructures has implications for the quality of city dwellers’ lives; take the example of the use of smartphones to access municipal services and transportation. Remote working has changed human resources organizational models and urban planning structurally, with significant consequences for commerce, mobility and social interaction in public spaces. The concept of the polycentric city no longer arranged around a historic center is gaining traction; nevertheless, urban renewal must not be allowed to trigger regressive effects, i.e., the exclusion of segments of the population due rising housing, services and transportation costs. On the contrary, cities must be inclusive and sustainable.

Infrastructure design cannot but involve the local community. Public debates must be launched from the earliest planning stages onward and continue even after the project’s completion. This practice has been included among the new procedures, and the ten public debates recently held are clear proof of their positive impact. Communication is strategic to consensus-building, and an infrastructure should be perceived for what it is: a vehicle toward the future and a source of opportunities.