“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated. I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans.” (Elon Musk – April 25, 2022)
Between the 4th and 6th of May, 2020 the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s (UNECE) PPP Center of Excellence held its 6th PPP Forum in Barcelona in partnership with the City Government of Barcelona and the IESE (Business School of the University of Navarra – Barcelona Campus). At this gathering of PPP professionals (from both the public and private sector) discussed the role of People-first PPPs (PfPPPs) for SDGs in delivering sustainable infrastructure to accelerate the 2030 agenda and shared many insights.
Current and emerging challenges and opportunities at both national and city level, such as climate change, the circular economy, digital transformation, green procurement and the blue economy were the primary focusses of the conference. However, the emerging importance of digital transformation took center stage in many of the discussions.
Innovative digitalization is a critical tool that can strengthen PfPPPs as it provides a “public forum” for transparent and competitive PPP procurements that authenticate stakeholders concerns regarding the current challenges that humanity faces.
A global 2020 survey asked PPP practitioners what sectors they felt offered the biggest potential in a post-pandemic world. Respondents highlighted broadband and digital infrastructure delivered through PPPs that would give vulnerable communities access to economic reintegration. This perception aligns closely with PfPPPs which see PPPs not just as a procurement mechanism but also as a tool for development and the achievement of sustainable development goals.
To fully describe the implementation of digitalization, we need to appreciate that it includes infrastructure, tools, and platforms that can enhance society through digital transformation. Digital transformation entails considering how projects deliverables, processes, and operations and maintenance of PPP projects can be changed through the use of new, digital technologies.
There is a need for enhanced innovative digitization implementation. In 2021, 55% of European companies stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the demand for digitalization, and 46% of companies reported that they have grown more digital (European Investment Bank). Furthermore, a lack of digital infrastructure is viewed as a key barrier to investment in Europe in 202. This is not limited to Europe. Eighty-nine percent of African banks polled by the European Investment Bank claimed that the COVID-19 pandemic has hastened the digital transformation of their internal operations.
Digitization and PfPPPs
With this in mind, it is time that PfPPP proponents embrace digitalization and address its project implementation challenges that include: time, cost, cultural differences, intellectual property and the digital divide. PfPPPs are ripe for digital innovation as they have the ability to leverage the combined strengths of the public and private sector. PfPPPs have a strong collaborative role in innovative partnerships and smart solutions (including smart documents supported riven by blockchain platforms) that can provide the digital networks that are needed to provide the services needed for countries to achieve their SDG goals. PfPPPs have an additional role as they take PPPs a step further. They are more than value for money projects, but are also focused in value for people (ESG considerations) and value for the future (future proofing and resilience).
Emerging UNECE Digitalization Focus
Of particular interest at the Forum was developing an understanding of how digitization is transforming PPPs and infrastructure projects particularly when it comes to sustainable development. Two sessions had a specific focus on the relationship between digitization and PPPs.
First Session: PPPs and the Digital Transformation for Sustainable Development
In a session titled “PPPs and the digital transformation for sustainable development” digital solutions to the delivery of PPPs were discussed in regards to challenges facing PPP project delivery processes, especially when it comes to the project identification and preparation phase which can result in resulting in considerable delays in bringing bankable projects to market.
Central to the discussion was a debate on policy that could introduce digital solutions and which could bring about digital transformation in the delivery of PPPs. It was acknowledged that while digital transformation does not guarantee project success, it certainly can contribute to the speed and integrity of PPP delivery. Digital transformation tools through enhanced insight into project data have the potential to increase the likelihood that a PPP will deliver critical sustainable public infrastructure and services as well as desired long-term social and economic impact.
Speakers were resolute in their conviction that we need to deliver sustainable and resilient infrastructure PPPs supported by innovative digitalization as soon as possible, because the world is on the brink of a critical climate change milestone that could cause long lasting damage to our environmental-socio-economic ecosystems.
The impact of this milestone can be mitigated, it was pointed out, by digitization tools and platforms that can improve delivery efficiency, strengthen procurement transparency, mitigate risk management and bring about a reduction in corruption throughout the PPP project’s lifecycle delivery process. Additionally, digital transformation would also provide PPP project managers and stakeholders with better data management which would support better project decision making.
During this session moderated by Jean-Patrick Marquet of WEF and Tony Bonnici of UNECE insightful observations were shared by speakers who included Mark Enzer (Chair, Centre for Digital Built Britain, University of Cambridge); Richard Threlfall (Global Head, Infrastructure KPMG International Services Limited, UK); Sara Alvarado (Executive Director, Institute for Sustainable Finance (ISF), Queen’s University); Melissa Zanocco (Head of Programs, Infrastructure Client Group, UK); and Nesrin Akin Oztabak (CEO, BIMCRONE).
Second Session: Digitalization and Resilience for PfPPPs for the SDGs
The second session focused on “Digitalization and Resilience for People-first PPPs for the SDGs.” This session which was organized by the International Sustainable Resilience Center (ISRC), New Orleans in partnership with UNECE.
The moderator of the session was Tanya Dombkins (Founder, uLand, PBC) and the panelists were David Dodd (President ISRC); David Baxter (Senior PPP advisor to ISRC); and Amanda Loeffen (Human Right 2 Water).
The panelists discussed what is meant by digitization; how digitization can increase resilience for PPPs; the interplay between digitization, SDGs and sustainability; digital tools that are available for resilient PPPs (i.e. UNECE’s PfPPP Evaluation tool); and pitfalls facing digitalization, especially in the area of data.
At the end of the session it was stressed that a bold leap needs to be taken to embrace digitization as we need to be as innovative as possible to mitigate climate change impacts on PfPPP. The was a unanimous agreement that innovative digitization goes hand in hand with sustainability and that it can improve the resilience of PPP projects.
There was an acknowledgement that there are a host of challenges that can be addressed by digitalization tool that include the:
- lack of available information and capacity for project implementation
- introduction of informed dispute resolution mechanisms
- choice of appropriate technology
- definition of realistic project scopes and desired outcomes
- selection of appropriate PPP models
- improved understanding constantly changing risk, risk sharing and their appropriate allocation
- adoption of needed sustainability, resilience and adaptation strategies
There was consensus that it is important that PPPs that are delivered must be are sustainable and resilient and that digitalization is a way to do PPP projects better and to ensure that the proponents of future PPPs can deliver projects which are accountable to numerous stakeholders.
At the end of the conference UNECE indicated that digital transformation is going to be an increasingly important focus in the coming years. This is encouraging as every digital innovation that is available should be embraced by PPP proponents to mitigate risk, manage projects better and to ensure that PPP partners are held accountable for promised outcomes and deliverables that are sensitive to the SDGs.
We are standing on the edge of the digital frontier, now is the time for PPP proponents to step over the frontier and embrace innovative digital transformation tools that deliver sustainable and resilient PPP best practices and KPIs that are data driven, and reactive to both predictable and unforeseen risks and challenges.
Digitalization will authenticate PPP project stakeholders, which will result in better projects which are future proofed.