12 Jun 2023
Venue: International Environment House II (Chemin de Balexert 7-9, Châtelaine) & Online
Organization: UNEP Resources and Markets Branch, Geneva Environment Network, German Agency for International Cooperation, Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability at Duke University
This event, organized by the United Nations Environment Programme, the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability at Duke University, and GIZ, within the framework of the Geneva Environment Network, presented the Infrastructure Sustainability LEarning (ISLE) model as a means of supporting countries in implementing UNEA Resolutions 4/5 and 5/9 on sustainable and resilient infrastructure.
About this Session
Infrastructure built and retrofitted over the next decade will largely determine whether the world moves along a pathway toward sustainable development and rapid decarbonization or continues to follow a business-as-usual trajectory. Guidance, tools, standards, and other resources exist to guide practitioners about how to build the next generation of sustainable infrastructure. Unfortunately, practitioners — engineers, government regulators, financiers, contractors, infrastructure owner-operators — are not using these resources sufficiently.
As infrastructure spending ramps up, an urgency exists to streamline access and familiarity with sustainable infrastructure guidance, tools, and best practices. The adoption of an Infrastructure Sustainability LEarning (ISLE) model, adapted from the ECHO Model used in the medical community, is a scalable, effective, and low-cost capacity building approach for sustainable infrastructure specialists and practitioners.
During this event, partners presented their work on adapting the ECHO learning model from the health sector to apply it in a pilot series of virtual learning sessions for infrastructure practitioners from over 70 countries, their ideas for scaling the model, and how to leverage existing tools like the Sustainable Infrastructure Tool Navigator into a framework that can be used to connect global learners to common resources. The event ended with an open discussion and networking session to explore potential collaborations for advancement.
UN Environment Assembly Resolutions
During the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), which met in Nairobi in 2022, Members States adopted a resolution on Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure (UNEP/EA.5/Res.9). This new resolution builds on a 2019 UNEA resolution (UNEP/EA.4/L.5) by encouraging Member States to:
- implement the International Good Practice Principles for Sustainable Infrastructure;
- promote investment in sustainable and resilient infrastructure, natural infrastructure and nature-based solutions;
- cooperate internationally to strengthen frameworks, including for financing; and
- provide opportunities for engaging relevant stakeholders.
The International Good Practice Principles for Sustainable Infrastructure set out ten guiding principles that policymakers can follow to help integrate sustainability into infrastructure planning and delivery. The individual principles and case studies were developed via ongoing global consultation and inputs from experts and UN Member States, as part of the implementation of UNEA Resolution 4/5 on Sustainable Infrastructure. The principles are now reflected in a subsequent UNEA Resolution 5/9.
By order of intervention.
Senior Policy Advisor, Federal Office for the Environment, Switzerland
Programme Management Officer, Resources and Market Branch, UN Environment Programme
Executive in Residence, Duke University
Senior Policy Associate, Duke University
Junior-Advisor, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ)
Laura PLATCHKOV | Senior Policy Advisor, Federal Office for the Environment, Switzerland
Sustainable infrastructure is fundamental to driving sustainable development and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as infrastructure influences more than 90% of all SDG targets across all seventeen goals. Infrastructure systems deliver essential services across all sectors, enabling economies and societies to function. Infrastructure investment can be a key leverage to boost economic growth, create decent jobs, and combat inequalities.
Infrastructure can also create major negative impacts on the environment. The construction and operation of infrastructure are responsible for 79% of global greenhouse gas emissions and have direct and indirect impacts on biodiversity and pollution. The type of infrastructure we choose and how we plan and deliver it are connected to the triple planetary crises, with decisions taken in this sector having lasting impacts for several decades. Recognizing these challenges, UN member states adopted Resolution 9 on sustainable and resilient infrastructure (UNEP/EA.5/Res.9) at the fifth UN Environment Assembly in 2022, of which Switzerland is a supporter. This resolution emphasizes the need to integrate sustainability and resilience into infrastructure planning and investment decisions for countries to apply good practices and utilize existing knowledge, tools, and guidance. The full implementation of the resolution requires support from various stakeholders, increased knowledge sharing, training, and capacity building, in existing and to-be-developed tools, approaches, knowledge, and other resources.
This event and the initiatives presented today contribute to the capacity-building efforts. The presented Infrastructure Sustainability Learning Model, adapted from a model used in the medical community, offers a scalable, effective, and low-cost capacity-building approach for sustainable infrastructure specialists and practitioners.
Rowan PALMER | Programme Management Officer, Resources and Market Branch, UN Environment Programme
Today’s discussion is centered around a capacity-building initiative that UNEP has been working on in collaboration with several partners. Sustainable infrastructure takes a broad approach to what infrastructure is. This includes traditional infrastructure sectors like transport, energy, and water, but also extends to telecommunications, food systems, healthcare, and other types of infrastructure that deliver various services. It also includes natural infrastructure that can provide these services independently or in conjunction with built infrastructure assets.
The Infrastructure Sustainability Learning Network
The Infrastructure Sustainability Learning Network emerged from the recognition of the significant need for infrastructure worldwide to achieve development objectives in a sustainable fashion. Estimates suggest that we require trillions of dollars annually in infrastructure development to meet global development needs over the coming decades, potentially the largest infrastructure investment boom in history. Much of this investment will take place in the developing world. Given the long lifespan of most infrastructure projects, typically designed to last for decades, the outcomes of this investment will have long-term effects, either positive or negative. Therefore, it is critical to ensure that infrastructure investments are as sustainable and resilient as possible.
There is a large base of resources, tools, and knowledge available for integrating sustainability and resilience into infrastructure. However, there is a gap between the available resources and the people who need these resources in terms of awareness, accessibility, and usage. To address this gap, UNEP has been working on in collaboration with several partners on capacity building, usually through workshops or direct training.
Project ECHO is an extremely successful model employed in the world of healthcare, with high potential of applicability to infrastructure training and capacity building.
Project ECHO in the healthcare world is based around the development of “ECHO Learning Hubs”, which are virtual communities of practice. These bring together practitioners and experts to share knowledge and problem-solving methods. The idea is grounded in the common hospital setting practice where colleagues in a particular department working on a specific topic convene regularly to discuss cases, as a group learning and group-solving exercise. Project ECHO aims to systematically replicate this model and make it accessible to healthcare practitioners who might not have access to other expertise within their workplace. This is particularly valuable for those based in rural settings or developing countries who may not have access to other colleagues with relevant expertise.
This model was initiated in the mid-2000s, leveraging virtual conferencing technology to host meetings. You can observe from the data that the model was gradually gaining traction and was quite successful. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Project ECHO was ideally positioned to support healthcare practitioners in managing the crisis. Consequently, the number of attendances at the meetings significantly increased during the pandemic, with more than 500 ECHO hubs now established worldwide, each with its own thematic focus. Based on this, we began to consider applying this model to our challenge, where we’re striving to provide more training and capacity building to infrastructure practitioners.
Infrastructure Sustainability LEarning (ISLE) Network: Exchanging Knowledge among Experts and Practitioners
Elizabeth LOSOS | Executive in Residence, Duke University
Project ECHO currently counts four million practitioners, becoming a highly impactful model that provides a low-cost, high-reach, and scalable solution. The medical community has developed this method to assist doctors and other health practitioners, who may not be trained in specialty care, to access peers for problem-solving as well as resources and expert input. We thought this model could work similarly for the infrastructure world.
Traditionally, expertise in sustainable infrastructure is scarce in developing countries. It is quite common that infrastructure development unfolds through projects carried out by consultants who stay for a limited time and leaves little in terms of capacity building within the country, where on-the-ground practitioners interested in building sustainable infrastructure may lack the training, capacity, or access to the necessary resources. To reverse this situation, we developed this idea of a ‘Virtual Learning Hub’ or an ISLE Hub’.
In the hub, different colors represent the learners or the practitioners such as local government officials from different communities dealing with similar projects or the different actors involved in one big project: planners, engineers, and those dealing with procurement. These various groups all represent a piece of the puzzle. The hub caters to what the local community needs and is a highly flexible model. During meeting sessions, participants share their successes, challenges, and problems and everyone can provide insights based on their experiences. In addition, ISLE Hubs are supported by input from experts on a certain topic, either based in the same country or abroad.
Experts do not simply provide information via webinars. Instead, they provide it as needed, interacting and supporting access to information, resources, and connections with other experts within a virtual setting. These hubs may operate for a predetermined period, perhaps a year for a significant project, wherein all planning and implementation phases are tackled, or it could be a more open-ended community of practice, continuously coming together to address issues as they arise. Sessions convene biweekly or monthly.
To test this model in 2020 and 2021, we launched a global learning hub titled “Sustainable Infrastructure: Putting Principle into Practice”. Over thirteen months, we conducted a series of monthly webinars, following a curriculum based on UNEP’s International Good Practice Principles for Sustainable Infrastructure. Each of the quarterly sessions introduced a principle, brought in an expert who had developed a tool or resource, conducted interactive polling, and engaged in a Q&A.
- Over the course of the year, 642 participants from about 70 different countries joined.
- Some attended many sessions, while others attended just once.
- The group with the highest representation were engineers, followed by non-profit, local government officials, academia, etc.
- There was substantial support, particularly from those who consistently attended.
- All sessions are online, resulting in thousands of downloads of the webinars.
Upon completion of this phase, we held a few focus groups to determine the efficacy of this model and whether to progress with it and how to adapt it. Currently, we are trying to roll out a series of small learning hubs to address needs identified by various communities. These hubs serve as a way to rapidly and widely develop a community and share information that fits the local need. Then, we are trying to build an overarching structure over this to support and facilitate an entire network of these learning hubs.
Sara MASON | Senior Policy Associate, Duke University
Examples of Hubs Currently in Development
- Sustainable rebuilding in Türkiye following the recent earthquake. The project is shaping up thanks to a group from a technical university in Türkiye that is keen to support a network of local planners aiming at rebuilding sustainably. Once the initial meeting bringing together all these local community planners take place, virtual hub meetings can be set and allow them to discuss challenges, what’s working and what’s not, and thereby exchange knowledge to incorporate sustainability into the process of rebuilding. While this initiative will primarily be hosted by experts in Türkiye, we can collaborate by bringing in external experts, who may provide additional insights, tools, or resources that could help.
- Green-gray infrastructure. This initiative is more regionally focused, with a group of practitioners in the Asia-Pacific region and another in the Americas. Practitioners are mainly engineers but also NGOs and others implementing green-gray infrastructure on the ground. The idea of these hubs is to give an opportunity and a place to exchange knowledge, resources, and tools to support their projects.
- Transportation and Biodiversity. This HUB could be potentially hosted by the EU Project Bison and WWF/GEF. The EU project BISON, a recently concluded four-year project, was centered on integrating biodiversity into the planning and implementation of transportation infrastructure through best practices identification. The HUB’s objective is to disseminate all the research findings to those who can put them into action. This is in parallel to a similar project conducted by WWF and Global Environment Facility (GEF) in Southeast Asia. The idea is to start up regional-focused hubs, one in Europe, and one in Southeast Asia to share best practices on mainstreaming biodiversity in transportation infrastructure development. Simultaneously, we want to encourage interaction between these hubs, so people from these two different regions can share findings, best practices and shortfalls, tools, resources, and research findings.
- Engineering Curricula. As a surge in infrastructure construction worldwide is expected, adequate training to integrate sustainability into the life cycle of infrastructure development and planning must be provided to the next generation of engineers. Not many universities worldwide offer specific programs on sustainable infrastructure. In our pilot project, highly attended by engineers, it was detected a strong interest in sustainable infrastructure engineering curricula. The hub aims to connect educational leaders in engineering, such as deans and other engineering school personnel who are considering or have already developed such curricula. The exchange of information among these people will support the effective creation of these programs. While the current focus of the hub is the Americas, the model could be replicated elsewhere.
Elizabeth LOSOS | Executive in Residence, Duke University
Individual learning hubs create small communities of practice, while aisle hubs and superhubs form a broader network, elevating the whole model and increasing its impact. All hubs can be connected together, allowing mutual support and the tackling of multiple issues at a time and with impact trickling down multiple hubs. This vision is guiding current efforts and it will take time to be fully enforced and effective.
Steps to Implement the Vision
- Developing a global network of individual learning hubs. These are mainly demand or need-driven, thus will not be created if local communities do not request their development.
- Establishment of a “center of excellence,” the super hub that connects all the others and strengthens the network. This larger super hub will firstly help with the administration and facilitation by providing training for interested individuals, equipping them to lead a hub. Drawing on Project ECHO, a series of tools and templates to assist with the hub will be developed. For instance, a PowerPoint template for a case in our pilot series has been developed to guide presenters on the information that needs to be provided. This will produce consistency, ensuring direct address of the issues. Most of the curriculum development tools like templates, and tools for running a hub can be more efficiently developed at one level, rather than redesigned each time a new hub is set up. Thus, this step includes training in tools.
- Connecting to global experts will allow us to fulfill our aim to become a clearinghouse, connecting experts to the hubs that need them. On the other hand, this opportunity will allow the many experts that wish to disseminate their research, their expertise, and the tools they have developed to the people on the ground. Thanks to the flexible model of the hubs, it would be possible to have entire curricula planned on a rotation of experts, or some supported by a single expert. As a group, we will not create new tools but rather facilitate people’s access to the resources they need, be it a financial tool or a vulnerability assessment tool. We also aim to form an advisory group that will bring together the expertise of the broader community. Lastly, we hope to develop a library of resources and case studies available for download also for people outside the hubs.
The idea of the superhub or the “center of excellence” is to create a connection between the vast number of organizations, individuals, and resources working on sustainable infrastructure, and the people that need the information. The ultimate goal is to create connections.
Mira PIEL | Junior-Advisor, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ)
- We cannot tackle the climate crisis without fundamentally changing and adapting our infrastructure systems. The connection to sustainability goes beyond the role of infrastructure in climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. It also encompasses other sustainability issues like biodiversity, gender equality, health, and economic development. Therefore, infrastructure development is a crucial means to reach the SDGs and the 1.5℃ target of the Paris Agreement.
- Sustainability in infrastructure development covers several dimensions, encompassing economic and financial, social and environmental sustainability, climate resilience, and institutional sustainability. Sustainability is a multidimensional concept that addresses various issues in infrastructure development, and a holistic approach is needed to make infrastructure systems fit for the future and ensure that infrastructure development benefits society as a whole.
- The topic of sustainable infrastructure development has also gained momentum at the political level, with global infrastructure initiatives such as the G7 Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment and the EU Global Gateway aiming to mobilize more private capital for more infrastructure projects. This requires empowering public officials in partner institutions to mainstream high-quality principles and standards that adhere to this holistic sustainability approach. Only then can we move from individual successful flagship projects to programmatic approaches, then to planning infrastructure at scale and reaching sustainability.
The Infrastructure Solutions Incubator project of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH (German Agency for International Cooperation GmbH) is working on sustainability along the infrastructure life cycle.
The graphic representation of the infrastructure life cycle used in the project shows various stages, from the initial political and strategic planning, through to project planning, procurement, and finance, to the actual implementation, operation, and decommissioning of a specific project. We distinguish between the upstream and downstream phases. the downstream phase typically begins with the planning and implementation of one specific project, while the upstream phases are about the political and strategic process of implementing specific infrastructure policies, setting targets for a country or municipality, and developing infrastructure project pipelines.
To realize the positive impacts of infrastructure on sustainability, a holistic approach across infrastructure systems, not just in individual projects is needed, which is what makes including sustainability in infrastructure planning an important part of upstream phases.
While there are many project preparation facilities that can support institutions in the sustainable planning of individual projects, we aim to support partners at a higher strategic level in terms of political and institutional change. We also work on knowledge management along the entire infrastructure life cycle. We try to compile various resources, methods, and tools and make them available to different audiences.
Why is Integrating Sustainability at the Upstream Level so Important?
Real progress on the SDGs and the Paris Agreement is only possible if infrastructure systems, their interdependencies, and the path dependencies infrastructure create are recognized and sustainability is considered in a more strategic and long-term vision. Our project aims to address those gaps. As sustainability at the conceptual level is not always clear, partners might need support to understand the multiple dimensions and the dependencies between sustainability dimensions.
Infrastructure is also often planned in silos. To make infrastructure more sustainable, a cross-sectoral approach is necessary, as infrastructure elements do not act independently from one another. Therefore, the right framework conditions are necessary, like a clear vision of sustainable infrastructure development set by national governments, incorporating sustainability principles into procurement policies, or sectorial or national infrastructure policies and plans.
In addition to our upstream technical assistance, we work on compiling various knowledge resources within GIZ, as well as together with other organizations that develop tools to assist policymakers, project developers, financiers, and others working in the field to plan and execute infrastructure strategies and projects more sustainably. Tools can range from very high-level political principles, like the G20 Principles for Quality Infrastructure Investment, to standards and guidelines developed by multilateral organizations like the OECD, UNEP and multilateral development banks. Tools are insufficiently applied, largely due to a lack of information as well as insufficient knowledge about the benefits and ways of application. GIZ, together with UNEP, saw the need to support people in finding the most relevant tools for their needs resulting in the creation of the Sustainable Infrastructure Tool Navigator. The Navigator is an online database of more than 100 tools that makes information on these tools easily accessible, offering a valuable resource to the work of different ISLE Hubs.
The ISLE Network offers various opportunities for the project, like deepening cooperation with other bodies, joining forces, and accelerating the impact of the work that our individual organizations are doing. In the ISLE Network, we also see an opportunity for infrastructure practitioners to share existing expertise and knowledge among different stakeholders and provide a venue for community learning about existing challenges and solutions. Specifically, the work that we do with our partner institutions, whether it’s technical assistance, training, or capacity building, could be complemented through the ISLE Network by providing ongoing support and continuous engagement, even after the technical assistance has ended. Integrating the Navigator and other knowledge resources that we work with into those different thematic hubs can help in the dissemination of good practices and also offers an opportunity to make our knowledge resources available to a wider audience and incentivize cross-institutional learning. Our project supports the idea of the ISLE Network and wishes to engage further, participating in the proliferation of further hubs.
Q: How will the ISLE Model ensure everyone is on the same page regarding what sustainable infrastructure means?
Rowan PALMER | A big part of our work is about raising awareness about sustainable infrastructure’s role in delivering the SDGs and providing basic education on what sustainable infrastructure is. This is a continuous effort and can be covered as part of the training of communities of practice. Depending on the nature of a particular hub, participants’ knowledge and expertise on a particular topic and on its sustainability dimension varies. Thus, getting people on the same page about what a sustainable infrastructure project looks like and how to do is one of the main objectives of the project.
Elizabeth LOSOS | In addition, although not directly related to the ISLE network, we’ve been making efforts to raise the profile of infrastructure and sustainable infrastructure in different international forums.
Q: How can member states, especially developing countries access this knowledge?
Rowan PALMER | The purpose of this is to be able to respond to demands for knowledge, skills, training, etc. from member states, whether it’s an official request through the government or simply individuals working in member states, particularly in developing countries.
Q: What is concretely needed to implement and expand the project, apart from funding?
Rowan PALMER | We need the demand for the services and partners willing to coordinate meetings and related activities, with support from the Superhub team. The central idea remains to provide an avenue to help deliver what is demanded to build sustainable infrastructure.
Elizabeth LOSOS | The other essential part is to bring together members, experts, and different organizations that have resources to share, like the UNEP’s tool, to increase connections.
Q: Countries are taking efforts to enhance their protected areas network, especially in line with the new global biodiversity targets for 2030-2050. They almost compete with various infrastructures, for instance in Central Asia, large infrastructure projects and big protected areas expansion plans, are in contrast without being aware of the other. Future project activities should be aware of this aspect.
Elizabeth LOSOS | The EU Bison project is focused on transportation and biodiversity, aiming to mainstream biodiversity into the planning for transportation and implementation operations. This aligns with efforts to get the early planning to take biodiversity aspects into account. We are trying to set up a hub dedicated to this because, in the EU Bison Project, two different groups of conservation biologists and transportation specialists were brought together, resulting in a beneficial and continuous exchange between two groups that do not regularly meet.
Rowan PALMER |The examples provided are mostly about thematic hubs. However, the concept can also be extended to regional hubs like a Central Asia Sustainable Infrastructure Hub, depending on demand. Sustainable infrastructure discourses often center around climate impacts and low-carbon infrastructure, but it is crucial to remember the other dimensions of sustainability, like nature and biodiversity. This initiative sits at the nexus of different global agendas: the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement, the New Global Biodiversity Framework and more.
Q: Is there any limitation on the type of topics and questions that can be brought to that Hub? What is the best way to get in touch with those Hubs?
Sara MASON | For already ongoing projects, like the green-gray Hub, the possibility to share a case or relevant information is possible. One of the benefits of the hubs is flexibility, offering the possibility to have sessions just on specific tools that can be useful to a specific community.
Elizabeth LOSOS | There isn’t any limitation to the topic. I want to also to circle back to the project ECHO has about 500 HUBS at this point, it’s a global network of healthcare professionals each of these hubs that existed had a focus and when COVID came around repurposed a lot of these hubs to address COVID, it shows the flexibility of this model.