Do we need new levers to close infrastructure investment gaps?

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

Forecasts suggest that infrastructure investment gaps are here to stay, especially when it comes to transportation and electricity. How can we close these gaps by 2050? The World Economic Forum distinguishes three major levers: (a) reduce demand, (b) build new infrastructures and (c) optimize existing infrastructures. There may be two additional important levers on our way to 2050 that stem from the growing connectedness of people and intelligent things paired with self-executing contracts (i.e. smart contracts). The first lever is novel pricing models for infrastructure usage or, more exactly an “intelligent user charges principle”. The second lever relates to effective altruism movement, the idea of identifying areas where one additional Euro can create the most impact.

Today, we are used to all kinds of pricing structures to pay for products and services. Product purchase, freemium models, flat rates or pay per use are part of everyday life. There is a second class of pricing structures that benefit from the growing connectedness and powerful algorithms. These have just started to become a normal part of life. There is Uber’s surge pricing that is based on market demand levels. Contingency pricing, which is common in the manufacturing or energy sectors, conditions the amount to be paid on the performance of the contractor. Any Mac user who tries to book a flight should be familiar with differential pricing, pricing based on the type of customer. So why shouldn’t we pay a dynamically adapted price for each time we “consume” infrastructures? Think of paying a certain amount of money per kilometer travelled? We could be reimbursed for travelling during off-peak hours or pay extra to have priority during peak hours. Depending on how the fuel economy of our car ranks compared to the median fuel economy or whether we share a ride or not, we would pay a dynamic price per kilometer travelled. And who has not yet dreamed about punishing the SatNav for inefficient routing? There could even be subsidies to foster the adoption of new environmentally friendly technologies. What about subsidies for vehicles that pro-actively improve the air quality in cities or discounts for socially disadvantaged families? The possibilities are endless and so are the synergies. If we track the kilometers we travel, we could also identify the roads that are working at a particularly high level of capacity utilization and allocate maintenance and expansion investments accordingly. This is similar to effective altruism, which tries to identify areas where a certain amount of money can generate the largest societal impact.

This may sound like Sci-Fi, but if we take all the buzz around the Internet of Things, distributed ledgers like Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence seriously, why shouldn’t the intelligent charge principle and effective altruism be feasible? Yes, there are various obstacles. For instance, we would need to quantify and balance a tremendous number of aspects. There are ethical questions like how should eligibility for discounts be calculated? Is it OK to favour densely populated areas and how can we make sure that infrastructures with low capacity usage are not side-lined? All these are questions and trade-offs that we need to find answers to in any case amid budget constraints. I believe that both, user charge principle and effective altruism driven infrastructure planning can help to find fairer answers and pose the right questions.

Another argument for why we need to consider both levers is, that on our way to a more sustainable world, certain trends undermine the ability of our existing infrastructure funding mechanisms to function properly. Firstly, we will need a lot of resources to roll out an intelligent transport and energy infrastructure. Secondly, E-mobility and mobility services with lower vehicle ownership have a negative impact on today’s infrastructure funding mechanisms. While E-mobility and more efficient transport systems reduce externalities and perhaps even infrastructure demand, they also reduce revenues from fuel taxes. The impact of E-mobility is even more far-reaching as this new paradigm will increase the investment needs for our energy grids. With lower private car ownership due to mobility as a service paradigm, countries with historically high motorization rates will see their tax revenues from car registration dwindle. In order to secure a steady monetary stream for infrastructure maintenance and expansion, we need to establish a policy that links taxes to the actual usage of infrastructures. These examples also raise another question: with all that change in terms of way of living and technology until 2050, do we overestimate future infrastructure demand or does Jevons paradox hold true? I will try to address this question in the next post.

© Daniel Bonin 2018