21 November 2023
In our first episode of our new Future Forces mini-series, Ashurst Australia partner Ratha Nabanidham, who specialises in mergers and acquisitions with particular expertise in the infrastructure, energy and resources sectors, speaks to the Head of Global Infrastructure at QIC, Ross Israel, and Mark Barges, Ashurst partner in our Paris projects practice about the expected extraordinary growth and innovation in the world’s infrastructure sector.
In this episode, three infrastructure experts discuss how megatrends, such as the race to net zero and accelerated digitalisation, present incredible infrastructure opportunities for construction, transport and IT companies. They share an overview of how infrastructure investment has changed over the past five years, the outlook of the infrastructure sector and why the infrastructure industry should embrace the concept of "resilience". They also discuss how government and businesses can overcome barriers to build a platform for communities to thrive in the future. For more information on the economic, geopolitical, and social megatrends to watch out for and the capabilities infrastructure businesses require to navigate these trends and tap the opportunities for growth, read the Future Forces Infrastructure report here.
To get a flavour of the topics we'll explore in our future episodes, you can check out our Future Forces 2023 Report, which highlights the megatrends that will shape businesses over the next decade. Read it here.
The information provided is not intended to be a comprehensive review of all developments in the law and practice, or to cover all aspects of those referred to. Listeners should take legal advice before applying it to specific issues or transactions.
Hello and welcome to Ashurst Business Agenda. And this, our very first episode in a special Future Forces miniseries, where we delve into the global megatrends that will reshape the businesses of today to create the industries and societies of tomorrow.
In this episode, you'll hear a conversation between Ross Israel and Mark Barges, hosted by Ratha Nabanidham.
Ross is the head of global infrastructure at QIC, a Queensland government owned corporation serving the government's long-term investment responsibilities. He co-founded QIC's infrastructure capability back in 2006 and has over 30 years of specialist skills in infrastructure, asset management, capital raisings, and merger and acquisitions.
Mark, a partner in our projects practice in our Paris office, has extensive experience in advising on conventional and renewable energy infrastructure projects in Europe, Africa, and Latin America.
And Ratha is a partner in our Brisbane office specialising in mergers and acquisitions with particular expertise in the infrastructure, energy, and resource sectors.
Together, the three of them shine a light on the infrastructure sector which is set for extraordinary growth and innovation in the years ahead. They share an overview of how infrastructure investment has changed over the past five years. They present an outlook looking forward at the infrastructure sector and why the industry should embrace the concept of resilience. And they discuss how government and business can overcome barriers in order to build a platform for communities to thrive in the future.
Yes, it's a fascinating discussion that covers a lot of ground, including how megatrends such as the race to net-zero and accelerated digitalisation present huge infrastructure opportunities for the construction, transport and IT sectors. So with all of that, let's jump in and hear the conversation.
Hi Ross and Mark. Really good to be speaking to you today about the megatrends shaping infrastructure businesses now and in the years to come.
Ross, you've obviously had a very long career in the infrastructure sector. How have you seen investment infrastructure change in the past five years?
Well, thanks Ratha, and great to be with you and Mark. I'd say there are four big thematics that have really driven the changes that we are seeing in infrastructure going forward but also evolving over the last five years.
The first of these is just decarbonisation and the energy transition. It's really being compounded by any energy security concerns. Which leads into the second big thematic, which is digitisation, which is really at the moment being catalysed by the AI revolution. The third "D" in this list of four is demographics and policy change. It's driving a demand for new infrastructure, particularly to meet the energy objectives that are increasingly being set. And then, the fourth key thematic is deglobalisation. This is a regionalisation, a shifting of supply patterns which is really being shaped by geopolitics.
Those four big key thematics have had two accelerators that we observe in the infrastructure investment landscape. And that is an increasing customer led element to infrastructure and how it serves for essential services in cities and across the relevant parts of the economy. And the second element is climate change, which is underpinning that customer's desire for certain outcomes, but also now being folded in behind with government regulation and real hard targets that are being set to deal with this enormous challenge we as a planet have to address.
Thanks Ross. Some big challenges there, but also some big opportunities as well for the sector.
Mark, do you think that it's fair to say that resilience would be a good word to use to describe the infrastructure sector at the moment?
I think that resilience can be seen through a number of lenses. Historically or in the last few years, when people talk about resilience, the immediate thought is how infrastructure is resilient to climate change. Because that's a really important buzzword.
Historically, when we looked at infrastructure, we looked at historical trends, how infrastructure would react to certain events based on a historical analysis. And that approach has had to change because we're in the changing world. I think that for a long time the focus has really been on climate mitigation measures, i.e how do we reduce the amount of CO2 put in the atmosphere so as to reduce climate change? And now, there is a realisation that Paris was eight years ago and emissions are still growing, and therefore, we're in a world which is still warming. And as a result, we need to start adapting because the climate's already starting to change.
That adaptation involves building and developing infrastructure and modifying infrastructure so that it's more resilient. And there are a number of approaches around that, which is, in a warmer world, in a world with changing weather patterns, is the infrastructure that we have fit for purpose? Schools, hospitals, are they capable of dealing with a changing climate? Transport, again, is it adapted to this changing world? But also, is infrastructure actually in the right place? Are cities in the right place or do we have to think long-term? Not so much about adaptation but actually moving that city, moving that airport, changing in a fundamental way that railway line or that port. Because in a world where sea rises, it's no longer in the right place, and we just have to rethink that particular model.
Resilience is also about computer hacking and things like that. Cybersecurity is also having a massive impact. We've seen a lot of issues in the last few years around hospitals being hacked and other major computer systems. And so, resilience is also about that.
And lastly, in terms of energy security, where energy security has been a common theme, particularly in the changing world, the conflict in Ukraine has supercharged that from a European perspective. Because they've been at the sharp end of energy insecurity or supplied disruption. And it has added a massive emphasis to European level, how we need to decarbonise and we need to do it very quickly so as to not be dependent on the fossil fuel supplies.
Could I add into a couple of comments, Mark? I highly endorse the climate change element of resilience. There's probably a couple of other elements to add to that.
With the infrastructure investor's mindset, the two long duration aspects that come into play given the attraction of the asset class for duration is really climate change and also technology disruption, obsolescence, or stranded asset risk.
I think that one of the key themes that underpins this word resilience is a large movement in infrastructure to be decentralised. And this has really manifested itself in the grid. From a very centralised delivery of generation of electricity, we are seeing a massive decentralisation through batteries, wind, and solar. That is going to make the grid more resilient to climate change, which is a really positive aspect. But the element of resilience is also touching into the nature of that technology evolving. Some technology like battery storage has a significant way to go to give us that resilience. And so, we are working through that as a asset class.
And also, I would emphasise what Mark said around cybersecurity risk. As we digitise and 5G impacts more on how we manage infrastructure with respect to monitoring it with sensors, data and the protection of it become a very crucial part of continuing to deliver the resilience of service through both climate change but also bad actors, accidents. There's a whole range of things that infrastructure needs to be resilient for.
Picking up on some of those themes, it seems to me that technological developments is one way that we're going to have to head towards helping address some of these challenges. What have you seen in the market in terms of artificial intelligence, augmented reality? Is there anything that you've seen out in the sector at the moment that's helping face some of these trends and challenges?
I think it's a huge opportunity for us. AI and AR go to the heart of a couple of things. One, improving safety of people working on infrastructure and maintaining it. Also, building new infrastructure. Being able to leverage experience, real time delivery of solutions to problems. In the maintenance area, together with sensors and better oversight whether through drones or on-infrastructure sensors, we're seeing a movement from time to condition-based maintenance, which is also delivering productivity gain with respect to the way assets are maintained. That's meeting also a challenge, which is, our workforces are aging. And the delivery of automation and more productive oversight of assets is a really key aspect that we'll all benefit from.
I suppose integrating through digital twinning and being able to test scenarios around some of the things we're talking about on climate risk, on the supply chain and delays, and delivering materials to build new assets as well as maintain old assets, is an element that the technology is really positively affecting. It takes time to integrate that into an operating business. And obviously, there's a large amount of training and, to a point we were raising earlier, a risk environment from cybersecurity that needs to be carefully thought through to deliver that technology as well into the business. Because there's very little customer sympathy for essential services not running and the politics of that becomes quite tricky. So, from that point of view, it's a very heavy onus on operators and owners to make sure these changes are robust in their delivery and they're not creating disruption to the service that would obviously agitate customers but also make less productive the infrastructure that they own.
I obviously agree with everything that Ross has just said. Beyond that, I suspect that, particularly in the infrastructure space where those infrastructures are there to provide services, I suspect that AI is going to have a positive disruptive effect. In the sense that the way hospitals and schools are run, AI may have a very positive impact in terms of management of patients, in terms of diagnosis, in terms of analysis of information, and use of that information.
Of course, with all sorts of concerns again about cybersecurity, about privacy. But there is a massive potential to actually improve what we're already doing. Given the constraints around doctors, nurses and things like that, AI has a massive role to play.
In the same way, we talked about grids earlier, AI is going to have a fundamental impact on improving the efficiency of grids, what we refer to as smart grids where you inject an offtake electricity, all sorts of levels. We're already seeing that in smart meters, and how you use the information collected from those smart meters, cars connected to the grid, injecting or taking on electricity. All of that will require a lot of investment but offer a lot of flexibility and resilience in the structure subject to that major theme around cybersecurity and disruption.
Mark, I was going to ask you a question on privacy. Because information so sensitive that's being aggregated is interpreted differently by different generations of customers that we're observing. How do you feel the law is keeping up with that privacy challenge more broadly? Because we're getting much more information, some of it quite sensitive to individuals. How do you see that evolving as well?
There are various initiatives around the world. The Europeans tend to be the rule setters of the world, whereas the US and China tend to be the innovators of the world in the last decade or so in terms of either technology or medicinal prowess. The Europeans are focused on setting rules. We've seen that with GDPR for example. And I suspect that is going to continue in terms of AI rule setting.
The challenge is getting the balance right. We saw during the pandemic in the UK, how the ability to harness the information the NHS had on patients was incredibly useful in predicting ways, in dealing with ways, in identifying specific strains of the COVID virus. Therefore, it's really important that these rules don't inhibit progress, but at the same time, protect individual privacy. And getting the balance right is really tricky. Whether the European Union is going to get that balance right, I don't know, particularly in its discussions around AI, without stifling progress is going to be quite challenging.
Because these models, at least large language models, rely on vast quantities of information, a lot of which some people might say is private information. And getting the balance right is going to be tricky.
It certainly does seem like one of the challenges is policy and law keeping up with the developments that are rapidly happening in the sector and what's needed to tackle these challenges.
Changing gears slightly then, I think, from the comments that you both said, decarbonisation and climate change is one of the biggest trends that I think is going to shape where we're heading. What do you see as the main challenges as to why transitioning into renewable energy isn't happening faster? And I know Mark, Europe's probably a bit further ahead than some other regions. So, interested to hear your thoughts on that.
In simple terms, it's because it's hard and expensive. Take simple things like energy efficiency in buildings. Conceptually, there's massive gains to be made in making buildings more energy efficient. But actually, the cost of it is quite significant. If you look at whether it's residential buildings or offices across Europe, we're talking about relatively old infrastructure. Vast majority of buildings in Paris, for example, are well over 100 or 200 years old. Actually insulating those and making them energy efficient is very difficult because you have planning constraints around that. And you also have hostility. A lot of residential buildings are co-owned by all the owners of that building. The younger generation who want to sell or rent their potential flat may be interested in insulation, the older generation who see themselves dying in that flat frankly do not care and don't have the means of doing so. And so, there's a real resistance in that. And the real challenge is from an architectural standpoint and from a speed and cost standpoint to transitioning.
We recently saw a big political debate in Germany about banning oil and gas boilers and transitioning to heat pumps because of the cost involved. There is resistance because of the pricing implications to do that in a quick manner.
In addition, carbon-based fuels, oil and gas, are incredibly dense and incredibly cheap. We've been running on this carbon based system for over a century. It's extremely efficient way of producing electricity and producing energy for cars, buses, and everything. Transitioning to a renewable system, which is not a dense system... I think there's a graphic where you could fill a room which is a hundred meters high by a hundred meters wide with wind running at a hundred kilometres an hour, and the amount of energy that generates fits in a few drops of oil. That gives you an idea of the density difference. And that energy isn't stable energy.
Therefore, transitioning a system which we've relied on and developed and fine-tuned for over a hundred years to a much less reliable, much less consistent energy supply is very hard and expensive. And that's why it has been so slow.
And you add to that the requirements to ensure growth and to remain competitive, vis-a-vis, and other international countries and other blocks, and that makes it even harder.
Ross, are they the same challenges you think are facing Australia and other parts of the world?
I think they are. Mark called out costs, and I think that's really pertinent for the other element of the market cycle we're in economically. We've got high inflation, we've got a large amount of indebtedness in government. And so, the ability to pass through those increased costs with transitioning legacy infrastructure and the new build is quite significant. So, I think that's one additional element of challenge.
I think the second is regulation. Here are two considerations around regulation that are challenging. The regulatory environments were set up for one directional flow of power from the grid to you and my house. Now, if we have energy storage and renewables on our house, we want to have a bidirectional regulatory arrangement whereby we're encouraged to contribute into a decentralised grid. That is a regulatory challenge, and so is importing the respective build of new assets in transmission and distribution into the regulatory asset base with higher costs of capital, which means it becomes expensive. So, that's one example of a regulatory challenge.
The second is, we know to get to net-zero, we need to have a massive build of renewable power. Nuclear being added into that, controversially or not, in different jurisdictions, it's a regulatory challenge. That brings into part, the risks that people perceive with respect to certain new technology or even old technology with respect to something like nuclear. And from that point of view, the regulatory aspect of not-in-my-backyard is also merging with respect to some of the requirements on transmission. And that would apply to nuclear in certain jurisdictions as well. And so, partly the challenge with some of these elements is educating the respective real facts around the transition that some of these technologies will have and actually being thoughtful in how they're presented from a policy perspective. And also, trying to transition them in on a trajectory that allows the targets to be met.
That is not an easy exercise. Each jurisdiction is dealing with its own different mix of power and natural resource around wind and solar. Australia is arguably in a very different position to Sweden or Finland with respect to something of that nature. And so, one of the big things that goes to the heart of what Mark was talking to, which was the transitory nature of that power, is how well does the technology and energy storage come forth to address that. Because it's very key that we are able to smooth the respective load. And storage is one very critical element to that solution, ultimately, in different jurisdictions.
Just to add to what Ross is saying, because actually there is an important point, which is that at the moment and still now, whether in France or elsewhere in Europe, there still isn't consensus to what is the right way of doing energy transition.
France had a massive political debate at the end of last year and the start of this year on that. For a long time, there was an accepted view that renewables was the way forward. There has been a massive, you could describe it as U-turn and realisation, that actually the only way to successfully energy transition for France is nuclear. As a CO2 grams per megawatt hour, looking at the entire cycle of a nuclear power plant compared to a wind farm, I think the difference is five grams per megawatt hour compared to around 40 grams per megawatt hour for windfall, once you take all the costs, the whole economic cycle of the project.
Because there isn't consensus as to the way you do the transition, it makes things a lot messier. Germany has taken literally the opposite view, which is to get out of nuclear and bet on renewables. To give you an idea of how there is a different perception, the head of the nuclear safety authority described Germany's approach to the energy transition, which involves moving away from nuclear and focusing on renewables, gas turbines, which can ultimately be converted into hydrogen turbines, that that approach was the equivalent of jumping out of an airplane and knitting your parachute as you are falling.
Picking up on that people piece and having to take people on the journey and have consensus to move forward, I think we have seen some great momentum around climate change and decarbonisation and people really embrace a lot of the initiatives. How have you seen or how do you see the demand for greener and smarter cities impacting the sector? And particularly interested, Mark, because you are based in Paris, next host of the Olympic Games. Has that had an impact? Ross, you are based in Brisbane who'll be hosting the Olympics after Paris, so interested in your thoughts as to whether that has had any impact or you see that having an impact.
I think there is a big difference, I work both in Europe and in emerging markets, notably Africa, and I think there is a real difference in how you adapt an existing city to how you design a brand new city. When you're doing massive transformation or redesigning a city, I think that you can look at it from a much more wider perspective. If you're building a new city or completely restructuring a city, it's much easier to rethink completely the way you design it, in terms of public transport, in terms of efficiency from an energy standpoint, from a heat standpoint, having a city which is already well adapted to walking around, bike transport, things like that.
When you're dealing with an existing city, take Paris. 90% of the infrastructure is already there, the underground is there, the streets are there. And there is massive resistance on completely tearing it all down and doing it in a more efficient way. As I mentioned before, the physical buildings are not going to change in Paris' Haussmann style. And there's no changing that. Therefore, you have to live within those constraints. You can build loads of cycle lanes, but actually you're not going to fundamentally alter the way the city is structured and therefore you have to live within those constraints.
When Saudi Arabia is building a brand new city, Neom, there, they can do whatever they want. They aren't any constraints. When Egypt is looking at building a new Cairo, again, it's a blank check on which they can look to build and improve.
And so, there is a fundamental difference with what some emerging markets can do. Whether they do it or not, whether they have the means of not to do, it's a different proposition. To what Europe with old, fairly established cities can do.
Beyond that, there is obviously a need to really rethink how we operate these cities. For example, Paris has launched the Greater Paris Initiative, which is linking all the suburbs of Paris with Paris and really focusing on e-mobility, bike lanes, things like that, thinking of a new way of looking at mobility across the entire Parisian region. Which goes beyond some of the historical ways of going about it, which were, if you were inside Paris, you would use public transport. If you were outside Paris, you're going to use the car. And that has been ditched and really focusing on it's got to be public transport because cars are, A, inefficient and, B, carbon intensive. Even if they electric, they're going to use a lot of materials to manufacture. And that is not the way forward.
I'd probably add a couple of points to what Mark said. The first is, I think one of the biggest things is it's accentuated social license to operate if you're an owner of assets. And so, the connection into communities and stakeholders has really become much more focused in delivering an urban solution and some of the clear changes that we've been talking about that come into essential services.
I think one aspect that the Olympics affords, which is a cut through, is it's a bipartisan project that puts politics to some extent to one side and can galvanise three of the key stakeholders that you have to deal with to build large urban city projects. One is customers, obviously residents. The second is the three layers of government, municipal, state and federal. And the third is regulators. I think as we look into Brisbane's Olympic opportunity, that's a tremendous bipartisan way to build backbone infrastructure, which will be a cut through for positioning the city in the southeast corner of Queensland for a very fruitful future well into the 2030s.
I'm sure in Paris, Mark, there's been some projects that have got the impetus because of the Olympics that probably you might've had much more trouble with in terms of some of those stakeholders, in terms of local communities and the history. Brisbane is afforded nowhere near as much history to navigate itself around in infrastructure as Paris.
Yeah, that's for sure. I suspect that the Paris Olympics, the carbon footprint of the Games and how to make them greener was kind of an afterthought. At the time when Paris probably won the Olympics, I suspect they wanted the prestige around it. Nowadays, there is much greater focus. I think the World Cup in Qatar really shone the spotlight on the footprint of these types of events. Obviously, Paris is going to break new grounds in that respect. But I suspect it's the Games or the World Cups which will follow where that is going to be a fundamental aspect of how those projects are awarded and how you get acceptance of those projects in the local community. I'm not sure it really was for Paris. It's kind of on the edge. It's working through that transition.
Oh, that's interesting. Because Brisbane's going to be net-zero as an Olympics. That's a clear premise on their bid. So, there's a lot of work to do to get there as we're finding as they work through the different facilities and obviously the core infrastructure that we'll deliver to the relevant patronage that will come through for the Games. So, lot for us to bite into there over the next decade.
Do you see, Ross, opportunities there as well? If we can host a climate positive Games, come up with new infrastructure and solutions, that's something that the state might be able to commercialise and market and be a market leader in. Do you see that opportunity?
Oh, absolutely. I think it can be a showcase. And as we've all seen and observed watching Games over the years, there's great interest in the region the Games sits in. You get an enormously global profile. So, it's a huge opportunity for Brisbane, Queensland and Australia, to say where we've got to in the energy transition. A lot of thought is going into that, but it's no small task to galvanise the different elements and to work through that in a multi-year period. Because whatever you suggest, the build, it takes time to plan that out and embrace it with communities. But I think rather it'll be a tremendous opportunity for, as I say, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, in various guises, to present innovation and our credentials globally in a major event.
I think that at one level, beyond trying to get an Olympic Games or World Cup which is carbon-neutral, there is a debate in Europe and I suspect in the rest of the world as to the viability of the model of those types of events, the viability of the economic models that we're seeing. Last summer, France's President said that "We are seeing the end of the year of abundance, the abundance of raw materials, the abundance of cheap electricity or cheap energy, the abundance of cheap debt", all of those things. And in a world where there are constraints and we have to be more careful. Is it really reasonable to have these global festivals where people travel from all over the world to see these events? Yes, they're desirable, but their footprint and the impact they have in the world.
And I think newer generations are maybe less amenable to those types of events in a world where there is more constraint, in the world which is warming at a fierce rate. We are definitely going to miss the two degrees Celsius upper limit that was fixed in Paris. Is it still acceptable to have these types of events? And I think that there is a mind shift in that even if they're carbon-neutral. Because the effort required to produce them in terms of construction, in terms of movements of people is very important.
Before we wrap things up, I wanted to put to both of you a final question. How will decarbonisation affect the success of the infrastructure sector?
I think it's a generational investment opportunity. The largest sub-sector in infrastructure as an asset class is energy and utilities. And then, in close proximity to decarbonisation is going to be an electrification of transport, which is equally significant. And so, from an investor's point of view, it's a key area of growth and opportunity. It is a pull through with respect to technology. And it's going, for a lot of the reasons we've already gone through, be a positive enhancer to where we all want to be from a net-zero perspective and a climate change perspective. It also has great potential for employment, for reinvigoration of industry, whether it's manufacturing to develop the supply chains that are going to deliver the respective materials. For certain countries which are endowed with the critical minerals like Australia, very much a lucky place to be, together with the natural resources that will underpin a renewable industry. There will be an array of different jurisdictional matters, but by far and away, we believe that the decarbonisation thematic will dominate infrastructure investment as a preferred element of portfolios.
And the flip of that is that it also brings an increased focus on carbon assets and the nature of their returns and risks, which have traditionally underpinned an infrastructure allocation at a pension fund or a sovereign wealth fund.
And then, in between the really heavy carbon assets and the ones that are not going to be carbon heavy are the industries that need to find ways to navigate lower emissions like aviation and maritime industries. And so, there's just a rich array of innovation that decarbonisation brings. A lot of it will be decentralised we feel. And so, that's an interesting thematic to develop at an operating level, how to run a company with a much more decentralised set of assets. These are really interesting challenges, but we think it creates an enormous opportunity and will probably underpin significant allocations to the infrastructure asset class from institutional investors for at least the next decade and beyond.
Agree with all of that, and perhaps two further comments. One is that decarbonisation or ESG and all of those issues was an add-on to infrastructure for a while. Now, it's the baseline. Effectively, any new kind of infrastructure needs to match that criteria. So, it's a go/no-go situation. It's the new world in which we live in that that is a requirement. So, it's not optional.
The second one, and for me it's probably the biggest driver of whether it's going to be a success or not, is getting acceptance from all stakeholders that this is the only way forward. If you don't get broad stakeholder acceptance at every level, bipartisan acceptance across the political spectrum that moving to renewables, moving to nuclear, decarbonisation of the entire economy is the only way forward, if it becomes a political issue, then it will fail. You need to get consensus across the political board, acceptance by the population, that this is the only way forward. And then, it will be a success. Because it doesn't matter which party is in power, they will continue with that dynamic. And that is critical. And that involves moving away from some of the political issues we're seeing. It's a political football in the US and they need to get past that in order for there to be a real move towards the decarbonised world.
Thank you both for your time today. It's been a really interesting discussion. Clearly, lots of challenges. But also, that presents the sector with a lot of opportunities. Those who are agile and move quickly to embrace the change will be well positioned going forward.
Thank you very much. It's a pleasure being part of this and it was a very interesting discussion.
Likewise. Thanks Mark, and thanks Ratha. It's been a great pleasure.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Ashurst Business Agenda. Now, this episode, as we mentioned at the start, is part of our special Future Forces miniseries where we explore the megatrends that will reshape today's companies to create the industries of tomorrow.
To find out more about the issues explored in this episode, download our new infrastructure article from the Ashurst website, where you can also read the flagship Future Forces report and explore other industry articles. The links are in the show notes to this podcast.
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And that brings us to the end of this episode. It just leaves us to say, thanks so much for listening, and goodbye for now.