Does a lack of infrastructure represent an opportunity for developing countries?

Daniel Bonin‘s third post in our Emerging Fellows program concerns infrastructure in developing countries. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members. 

A lack of infrastructure creates opportunities and carries risks for developing countries. Legacy infrastructure reduces the degree of freedom for infrastructure planning in developed countries. There lies the opportunity when planning infrastructure from scratch for developing countries. Infrastructure layout and services could be completely re-thought without the confinements of existing infrastructure and tailored to their specific needs. This is in the interest of developing countries as they need unique solutions that work at their scale. As a consequence, new infrastructure paradigms could emerge.

New paradigms could be based on both frugal and high-tech concepts, depending on the state of the economy of each country and other regional specifics and trends. For example, a lack of waste management infrastructure could be overcome by both artisan like circular economy approaches and even more futuristic solutions that consider automated underground waste collection systems. In other areas, a lack of infrastructure could facilitate the implementation of novel concepts around topics such as clean energy and water. There is already a shift towards decentralization and prosuming, a new paradigm under which consumers turn into producers. Developing countries might leapfrog towards renewable energy generation of prosumers, microgrids, and atmospheric water generation. This would constitute a paradigm shift compared to centralized infrastructure and grid dependency of today.

Sometimes less is more – this also holds for urbanization. Entirely new neighborhoods or even entirely new cities will emerge in developing countries until 2050. Today, we see uncontrolled urban sprawl and conversion of precious arable land. For tomorrow, we need to steer the rapid urbanization. New urban areas could look completely different if they were to be designed from scratch. Entirely new paradigms for urban planning would be possible. More green space or even forest cities could be realized without the disruption to established processes and grown structures. Last but not least, a lack of housing and surrounding infrastructure paired with more powerful infrastructure development banks hold potential for employment and economic growth in developing countries.

A lack of infrastructure is only an opportunity if actions are taken at the right time and at the right place. It is necessary to develop future scenarios to understand where people might move and what their future needs might be. In order to exploit the potential of a fresh start, it is also important to anticipate technological change. Otherwise, there is a danger that a large amount of legacy infrastructure is created.

This also highlights the thin line between the risk of delaying infrastructure and meeting the growing demand for infrastructure in developing countries that comes as a result of ongoing urbanization and income growth. If these challenges are mastered, infrastructure planning can play a new role besides the provision of services. Infrastructure then defines the order of societies and economies in developing countries. How developing countries deal with a lack of infrastructure will determine whether they will be characterized by decentralization, prosuming, and more livable urban areas. This could be their contribution towards a more sustainable world and might cause them to emerge as role models.

© Daniel Bonin 2018