Five Misconceptions about Infrastructure


This page in:

Ensuring that the world economy and its citizens have sufficient infrastructure—from transport systems to electricity grids and water pipelines—is an increasingly pressing issue. It’s also a subject matter surrounded by misconceptions. Five are worth noting:

1)    Lack of investment is not always to blame.
The first is a common assumption that when infrastructure is too inadequate, congested, or old, the culprit is always a lack of investment. The truth is more complex. Globally on average, infrastructure stock --which includes transport (road, rail, ports and airports), power, water and telecommunications--accounts for about 70 percent of a country’s GDP.  Brazil, whose infrastructure stock is less than 20 percent of GDP, under-spends chronically compared with its economic size and growth. It seems no coincidence that the country’s airports are 122nd out of 142 in the World Economic Forum’s rankings. Other under-investors include the United Kingdom, Canada, India, and the United States. But other countries over-invest for the size of their economies. China, Poland, Italy, South Africa, and Japan are among them. Japan’s stock of infrastructure is equivalent to nearly 180 percent of its GDP. Over the past 18 years, growth would have “justified” investment of around 3 percent of GDP, but Japan spent 5 percent.

2)    It’s not what you spend. It’s how you spend it.
A second misconception is that finance is the overwhelming issue for the infrastructure sector. Concerns about how to find money to fill deep infrastructure needs remain the linchpin of current discussion. According to a new report from the McKinsey Global Institute and McKinsey & Company’s Infrastructure Practice, Infrastructure productivity: How to save $1 trillion a year, the world needs to spend $57 trillion on infrastructure over the next 18 years, nearly 60 percent more than it has spent over the past 18.  That’s more than the value of the entire stock of infrastructure on the ground today, a prohibitive figure at a time when many governments are highly indebted, and capital is tight.
But this makes it even more vital to look beyond money and focus on boosting infrastructure productivity. Doing so could save $1 trillion, or 40 percent, a year. (figure1)

Figure 1

3)    It’s not all about private money.
A third misreading of the facts is that private money is the answer to the world’s infrastructure needs. There is certainly some pent-up demand for infrastructure investment from pension funds, insurance companies, and sovereign wealth funds. Such investors have expressed frustration that they can’t find enough suitable projects to meet their target allocations—one problem being that many projects are in the developing world, which private capital regards as riskier. Global infrastructure spending’s “center of gravity” has already shifted to developing economies (figure 2).  But even if these investors reached their targets, this would only result in an additional $2.5 trillion of investment through 2030. Of the $57 trillion needed, this is less than 5 percent. Compare that with the 40 percent that could come from higher productivity.

Figure 2

4)    More is not always better.
A fourth misconception is that new, and more, infrastructure is always the best option. Actually, making the most of what is already there could save $400 billion a year. Intelligent transportation systems for roads can double or triple the use of an asset—typically at a fraction of the cost of adding the equivalent in physical capacity. More efficient use of rolling stock can boost the capacity of rail freight operations by 10 to 20 percent. And raising the efficiency of sea port terminals can increase their capacity to handle traffic by 20 to 30 percent. Governments need to manage demand to increase the shelf life of existing infrastructure. Congestion charging is a proven tool. Seoul has dealt with congestion through an integrated traffic-management system that includes improved bus operations, access restrictions, and the electronic collection of fares. Maintenance also needs to be better planned to increase capacity and prevent infrastructure from deteriorating to the point at which repairs become prohibitively expensive. In Africa, for instance, spending $12 billion on road maintenance during the 1990s would have saved an estimated $45 billion on reconstruction.

5)    The infrastructure sector is not averse to change
A fifth fallacy is that there is really nothing much that can be done to improve infrastructure investment and delivery—after all, this is a sector that has performed poorly for 100 years or more. The truth is that the $1 trillion that the world could save each year on its infrastructure bill does not require a technological revolution. The steps that need to be taken—doing more with existing infrastructure, improving planning, and streamlining delivery—are all practical solutions drawn from 400 real-life case studies. Change can come quickly. In Australia, the state of New South Wales cut approval times by 11 percent in just one year by clarifying decision rights, harmonizing processes across agencies, and measuring performance.  

To spur change programs and capture potential savings, governments must move beyond a project-by-project view and upgrade systems for planning, operating, and delivering infrastructure. A well-functioning system entails close coordination between the authorities responsible for different asset classes, clear separation of political and technical responsibilities, and clarity about the roles of (and effective engagement between) the public and private sectors. Other requirements include improved stakeholder management, better operational and financial information to guide decisions, and upgraded capabilities across the infrastructure value chain.

The private sector, too, has a role to play: it can drive productivity within its own operations, engage in a productive dialogue with public-sector stakeholders, and develop business and contracting models that promote the productivity opportunities outlined above. If the world stops focusing exclusively on what it needs to invest and starts paying attention to how it invests, delivers, and operates infrastructure, pessimism over today’s infrastructure challenge will give way to a renewed belief in what’s possible and kick-start concrete action.


Robert Palter

Director, Infrastructure Practice, McKinsey & Company

Join the Conversation

Ng'andu Magande
May 08, 2013

i fully agree that the productivity of existing infrastructure is very important. In Zambia, a lot has been spent on road infrastructure since 1964. However, some of the poorest of the rural dwellers are a few metres from the best roads. Many of the poor have their huts underneath electricity power lines. With 45 percent of SADC's water resources, a large number of Zambians on the banks of rivers and lakes suffer from food insecurity for lack of use of the water for irrigation. The current government wishes to spent trillions of Kwacha on new roads even when the old ones are breaking down. There is no valuation on what will be carried on these roads or produced on the rich soils being cut up to make these roads.

May 10, 2013

i agree with the above, however there is a need to for developing nations to look inward and using local materials to meet their infrastructural needs this will greatly reduce their expenditure as well

Ramesh C Vishwakarma
May 14, 2013

I think it is a good article.

William Grenke
May 14, 2013

Five good points, above. I might add that in developing countries, I have seen new highway projects, funded by the World Bank and other lending agencies, quickly deteriorate due to lack of maintenance and grossly overloaded vehicles. As a result, service life of the roads is often shortened by a factor of three or four. Unfortunately, loans are usually for new construction, not maintenance. So, when the roads wear out, they just ask for more construction money, and often get it. This seems like negative reinforcement of bad behavior. Training and equiping more maintenance crews, and controlling axles loads, could save millions.

June 16, 2013

One of the additional points which was forgotten is the ability of the users to pay for using and maintaining the existing or new infrastructure. Take 2 examples - roads and electricity. Both require maintenance and electricity requires to pay for use. When the tax revenues do not cover the maintenance expense - both infrastructures fall in disrepair. If users of electricity cannot afford paying the price of the used electricity or a large percentage of it is stolen through pirate connections - ultimately, the infrastructure fails. While private investors clearly understand the users financial abilities - they would stay away from such projects where their investments will not have a return. Consequently, private investments are in developed countries were there is ability to pay for usage of infrastructure. To a certain extend, aid programs tend to minimize the users abilities to pay for the new infrastructure.