Sustainable return on investment for communities - how Envision can help

January 25, 2016

How can we bring environmental, economic, and social factors into infrastructure planning and costing? Resilient planning guidelines can help.


In the old days, calculating the cost of infrastructure was fairly straightforward: Just figure out the up-front capital cost. Departments and officials responsible for getting a roadway or water treatment facility built often didn’t care about the costs after the ribbon was cut; that was the operations department’s problem.

I’ve long thought of infrastructure as integrated components within a city, like the circulatory, digestive, and skeletal systems of society envisioned as a living organism. But it’s as if we had designed fingers without considering their relationship to hands, much less the heart. Hardly anyone cared about, let alone calculated, environmental (pollution, damaged ecosystems) or social costs (increased community asthma, longer time in cars) associated with individual infrastructure items. And calculating a piece of infrastructure’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change? Unheard of.

Holistic Infrastructure Approaches
But today, in our world of super storms and the COP21 international climate change agreement, things are different. Most public works decision makers and a growing number of political officials are ready to change how they approach infrastructure renewal. They are acknowledging that infrastructure should be (and probably always should have been) planned and designed in a holistic, integrated, and lifecycle-oriented way where environmental, social, and economic values are intertwined.

Now we know that relationships and connections are critical in creating highly functioning, resilient, adaptable communities. That the transit bone is connected to the water system bone. In New York City during Hurricane Sandy, pumping stations went down due to electrical shorts from the storm surge, causing stormwater conveyance to overflow. The only place the water had to go was down subway stairs to flood the subways and streets.

But how can we bring environmental, economic, and social factors into infrastructure costing? How can we help traditional (government) and new infrastructure impact investors (pension funds, university endowments, philanthropists) satisfy their two important values: return on investment and value to society?

Calculating Sustainable Return on Investment (SROI)
This is where sustainable return on investment (SROI) or triple bottom line (TBL) accounting comes in. This rapidly growing field has come a long way in helping us figure out the economic value of walking paths and green spaces, fewer traffic injuries, attractive views, noise pollution, community quality of life, and even natural ecology, such as a lost—or gained—wetland.

This has involved research, the scrutiny of historical data, and new models and frameworks to bring this information into business case analysis. Some of the most important work in the past few years has brought SROI analysis right into the Envision Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System’s five categories: Quality of Life, Leadership, Resource Allocation, Natural World, and Climate and Risk. The goal is to assist decision makers to make and defend infrastructure design choices in a consistent, transparent and defensible fashion.

New Tools for Calculating SROI on the Fly
Impact Infrastructure is leading the way with AutoCASE, a web-based tool that, according to the firm’s website, lets design teams update a project’s risk adjusted “financial and sustainability-related value in real time,” from feasibility through to construction. “AutoCASE is also integrated with Autodesk’s AutoCAD® Civil 3D® software, enabling it to extract information from a project’s design and use that information for the project’s business case.”  

Another tool that will be worth checking out is the Zofnass Economic Process Tool, developed by the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure. Currently in beta, this Envision-based platform offers a fast and easy reference to help quantify and monetize an infrastructure project’s sustainability dimensions.

These tools are complementary and address important needs of decision makers:

  • Clear and transparent processes
  • Educating and communicating to all interested parties
  • Aligning priorities with community, owner, and stakeholder values
  • Satisfying the requirements of public and private capital providers

And both help infrastructure decision makers develop compelling business cases that incorporate social and economic returns.

I hope our old, narrow way of thinking about infrastructure costs are behind us and that we will bring holistic thinking and consistent, comparative analysis to solving our infrastructure challenges. At least we now have promising tools to do so.


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