In summary:

  • Funding, a lack of collaboration, political polarisation and aversion to risk create hurdles for large projects
  • The sector needs to think about political will and leadership as individuals, not wait for politicians
  • Consultants need to bring solutions and highlight economic and social benefits to support the public sector
  • We need a vision to get to the ‘moon’

Political will and leadership are two of the main challenges to delivering large infrastructure projects in the US, Rick Dimino, president emeritus of A Better City, said as he opened Environment Analyst’s 2024 Sustainability Delivery Summit in Boston last month.

But, he added: "Our industry does not want to wait around for the politicians. We need to think about political will and leadership as individuals. It needs to be in all of us. We can't sit on our hands." 

He noted that consultants can play a role driving and collaborating with elected officials and other stakeholders, as they have important opinions and views on issues critical to many projects.

Mr Dimino questioned whether the US could still deliver big projects, especially relating to the built environment. Investment is one problem – despite huge funding allocated through new infrastructure legislation, such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the US still spends less than any other G20 country on infrastructure. 

Capitalising on the grey

Polarisation is another problem and has "stopped us moving the needle", he said. "In the US, we live in black and white, and so far, we haven't been able to capitalise on the grey. We are showing some signs of being able to move forward. But we still have a lot of work to do," he said. 

From his experience in some of Boston’s largest infrastructure projects over many decades, Mr Dimino said that redevelopment projects have had significant economic and social benefits, and the area is now one of the strongest economic centres in the North East. In addition, negative environmental impacts have been minimised by capping emissions, building effective public transport, and an agreement to offset vehicle emissions.  

But he said it was unlikely that such investments would move ahead today, blaming the political climate, the lack of collaboration, and people’s aversion to risk.

Showing the way

Mr Dimino questioned the success of public-private partnerships, saying: "Nobody gets their arms around them and does them as well as they should do." He prefers the idea of public–private innovation, where groups like consultants show the path forward. "When the private sector comes to us and shows us the way, it means a lot. Because finally, we get a lot of clarity on things that we think are grey. And that's actually very important."

Consultants also provide valuable insights into the economics of large-scale investments, highlighting the economic benefits early on in projects, as well as at the borders of interventions.

But the sector needs to further develop its workforce, Mr Dimino suggested, and strengthen procurement and project ownership, which he said was critical to delivering projects on time and on budget. "As consultants, we're only as good as our clients are… make sure that that's something you give attention to," he added.

Having a vision is critical. And Mr Dimino recounted President John Kennedy’s ambition to send a person to the moon. "At the time, nobody was really ready for that, including the scientists and the engineers, but setting the target made it happen," he said, and asked: "Can we do the same for climate and resiliency, and make that our new exploration and journey and commitment to get to the moon?"