New steps in Asia: data + connectivity = better infrastructure investment

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Infrastructure in Asia report Famous landmarks in Asia | © ShustrikS, Shutterstock

The pervasiveness of digital technology, big data, artificial intelligence, and the internet of things adds a new layer of complexity to the infrastructure systems that connect us. The digital revolution, harnessed well, can transform the lives of billions through better delivery of resilient infrastructure services, spurring inclusive economic growth, increasing job opportunities, and driving human capital development.

But to achieve this a key input is reliable, standardized, and extensive data.

Governments do their best to generate data to inform planning and investment, but territories are vast and resources are limited. And so we know that often governments collect and work with data that is patchy, inconsistent, and unverifiable. This is especially true in the infrastructure sectors.

We also lack critical connectivity infrastructure. It’s often hard enough to connect neighboring towns and cities—or different modes of transportation within cities. How about connecting trading partners’ transporation nodes to reduce time and cost? Can we create regional electricity markets, like the Pan-Arab Energy Trade Conference? Might initiatives like this help drive the energy transition to renewables and, in the process, promote peace and stability? How will the evolution to cleaner transport affect the need for power infrastructure?

It is in this context that I want to highlight our new report, Infrastructure in Asia and the Pacific, which presents comprehensive data on infrastructure provision in three key economic sectors in the region: road transport, electricity, and water and sanitation.

This is the first comprehensive, regional stock-taking of levels of supply, quality, and affordability of infrastructure services in Asia.  As such, its value is as much in the regional overviews per infrastructure sector and country snapshots as in the compilation of disparate information in to a single volume.

Many of us have focused on the need for data to inform infrastructure planning, investment, and service delivery: big data, little data, data from different sources. In infrastructure this is critical because we must better understand current levels of service in order for governments to plan and spend wisely into the future. This is especially true as infrastructure often carries a high price tag, paid by citizens. Badly planned infrastructure is hard to reverse since, once built, it has a long lifespan.

It goes without saying that infrastructure is profoundly connected with and drives development:   well thought-out infrastructure investment helps raise economic growth rates, offers new economic opportunities, helps people live more comfortably and safely, and facilitates investment in human capital.

Building this more extensive body of knowledge about the health of infrastructure provision worldwide is a priority for the World Bank and this is the first step of a research effort that we will expand to other regions. The effort’s impact on infrastructure finance may be profound: if we focus on better planning, more connectivity, and smarter investments we may not necessarily need to spend more money.

We know that putting an intelligent digital layer over physical infrastructure can lead to remarkable efficiencies, allowing us to do more with less. Examples range from managing traffic congestion, planning public transport routes, deploying of waste collection trucks, to water leak detection and flood control. But for all of this we need reliable real time data and connectivity.

Why did we start with Asia? At one level, it’s a region where we have fairly extensive data across countries, which made this maiden data voyage of ours a bit easier. That said, with respect to data collection, it’s all relative: there are severe data deficiencies, particularly in the Pacific subregion. Our colleagues can compile the data in one place, but there must be reasonable confidence in its integrity. This is an important point, especially as we take this work forward elsewhere: we need more data collection, yes, but we also need public disclosure to ensure the figures stand the test of verification.

I’ll go even further to say that public disclosure is not a panacea. For example, IBNET, which tracks water utilities data, works on the basis of self-disclosure and a number of countries have not updated their information for several years. The real test is sincere, sustained government commitment to gathering good quality verifiable data in the first instance.

There’s another important reason why this series started with Asia: the region sees the world’s fastest growth rates, while also accounting for about 36 percent of the world’s extreme poor.  In addition, it’s one of the most rapidly urbanizing regions along with Africa. This message may be easily missed, as over the past few decades the lion’s share of the region (both East Asia and South Asia) has enjoyed strong economic growth and steady social development. But we know that, like many, the region sees significant constraints in infrastructure investment.

The short- to medium-term challenges of COVID-19, higher borrowing costs, and geopolitical tensions exacerbate this. Longer-term, we also know that Asia is highly susceptible to the effects of climate change, so infrastructure development must be high quality and sustainable.  Here I note that Infrastructure in Asia and the Pacific goes beyond appraising coverage levels of infrastructure services in Asia to also provide indicators that serve as proxies of multiple dimensions of infrastructure quality.

I’ll end on the broader theme by saying it is abundantly clear that more data and more connectivity will lead to better investment decisions and outcomes over time. If we’re not fully grasping this, we are—without exaggeration—wasting scarce resources and not serving citizens well.



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This blog is managed by the Infrastructure Finance, PPPs & Guarantees Group of the World Bank. Learn more about our work here.


Darwin Marcelo

Senior Infrastructure Economist, the World Bank

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