Change Leader: Sustainability Needs to Be the New Normal
This particular interview was recorded by Todd Danielson, the editorial director of Informed Infrastructure. You can watch a video of the full interview above or by visiting bit.ly/3sd2qlM.
Jennifer Hara is a self-proclaimed “infrastructure nerd.” It may have started in her blood, with her father being an elected politician in the state of Washington, but it certainly developed through her education and career in a range of infrastructure aspects, particularly finance and currently focused on sustainable infrastructure. Her experience and expertise allow her to proclaim: “it’s a really exciting time to be part of all this infrastructure work.”
In particular, she’s referring to the financial investments recently passed through the U.S. government’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), but there’s more to it than those laws.
“At the end of the day, what’s really changed over the last probably three to five years is the acceptance and acknowledgement that things have changed, and we need to do better by our built environment,” explains Hara.
Planning for the Full Lifecycle
Hara notes that some infrastructure projects run into problems after construction, as funding for unavoidable wear and tear as well as unforeseen future problems wasn’t in the original plans. Politicians and developers like to have “quick wins,” but that can cause problems later in the lifecycle. She points to another area of her expertise, public-private partnerships (P3s), as forcing infrastructure partners to think of long-term goals.
“This country has been great at funding really big, massive capital infrastructure projects,” says Hara. “But we have not been good at thinking about the long-term lifecycle costs, the long-term operations and maintenance, and what we can do to make sure that as those projects need to be continually refurbished or enhanced or replaced, knowing where that funding’s going to come from. P3s are good at helping to put a contractual structure in place that forces long-term thinking.”
According to Hara, sustainable infrastructure is just another form of long-term planning that must be used to create cost-effective and lasting projects.
“The sustainability label should not be a hindrance or cause anyone to worry,” she adds. “It really needs to be the new normal, and the way we’re developing and building all our infrastructure.”
Hara admits there’s a lot of information out there about sustainability and new ways to finance infrastructure projects. Her advice to sift through the noise is to seek trusted and experienced individuals and organizations for help. Adding an experienced employee or two is a good idea when possible.
“It’s about educating and raising awareness about what all this means,” she notes. “If you’re a small- or medium-sized firm, and you don’t yet have someone on staff who has some experience in designing and implementing these projects, get one of those people on your team. That’s the easiest, fastest way.”
If adding personnel isn’t possible, reach out to trusted folks outside your industry or attend conferences. There’s so much information out there, some of it coming directly from the White House and the different government departments. This is an area the administration is laser focused on, notes Hara, so there’s no lack of information.
“In fact, maybe that’s the advice: there’s so much information that the easiest thing to do is find a trusted resource and just start to ask some questions and become knowledgeable,” she says.
When asked to summarize her advice to fellow “infrastructure nerds,” she offers two main components:
“First, don’t be afraid to ask questions and reach out to experts,” offers Hara. “There are plenty of folks out there with expertise who would be happy to share and get folks more familiarized and comfortable with what all of this means.
“Second, it behooves everyone to think about financial feasibility,” she adds. “It’s really about partnering and putting teams together that can work collaboratively across a bunch of different areas of expertise, so you can develop a solution that puts the best plan forward and hopefully is a success.”