Balancing the trade-offs in infrastructure in New Zealand - with Ross Copland

Ross Copland has a background in design, procurement, financing, and the delivery of infrastructure as an engineer and an asset manager.

He recently became the Chief Executive at the New Zealand Infrastructure Commission, Te Waihanga. We caught up with him to find out about his role and what will challenge the consulting and engineering sector over the next few years.

Ross Copland

Ross Copland

What led you to the role with Te Waihanga?  

I studied civil engineering on a scholarship with  Mainzeal  Construction. Starting as a site engineer in Auckland, my position eventually turned into a national role. In 2010, I moved to Sydney as the National Operations Manager with Westfield (the world's largest retail property group). I was involved in some large construction, and portfolio-wide efficiency projects for Westfield along with capital works budgeting and planning. When I returned to New Zealand, I spent the next seven years developing and operating tourism infrastructure in Queenstown and the central North Island.  

What do you do for Te Waihanga  

In simple terms, our purpose is to improve New Zealander's lives through better infrastructure  

We achieve this through three core focus areas. The one area that we're most well-known for is the development of the 30-year Infrastructure Strategy. The strategy examines the future development of energy, water, waste, telecommunications, transportation and social (health care, education) infrastructure. We'll publish a draft of the strategy mid next year and the final sent to the minister for comment in September.  

To develop the strategy, we developed several reports which look at the current state of infrastructure in New Zealand. These reports are available on our website. We welcome comment on these reports, and there will also be an opportunity for people to provide feedback on the draft strategy next year.

Our second focus is an accurate and credible pipeline of information for the construction industry, detailing investment intentions over the medium term. The intent is to enable the industry to plan, remove speculation, provide secure forecasts, attract new entrants and drive competition and innovation.  

The third focus area is our Major Projects Advisory function. We have a framework for assessing projects based on risk, strategic fit and value. We provide support to government agencies, local authorities and others to procure and deliver significant infrastructure projects. Our goal is to supplement, rather than replace existing capacity with our major projects expertise.  

What attracted you to the role?  

I've been involved in the development of business cases, obtaining consents and the execution of various infrastructure projects. In those roles, I gained first-hand experience with how difficult it can be to get things done in New Zealand. We suffer from low productivity, low adoption of technology, a design process that is not well-coordinated, and hugely expensive and time-consuming approval processes to undertake projects New Zealanders need. Ultimately, we haven't created a sustainable construction sector. I saw this role as an opportunity to influence change at a strategic level directly with the Government. I'm motivated by the need to address the substantial infrastructure deficit accumulated over the last two decades and the need to react rapidly to the massive challenges we face in decarbonising our economy, addressing demographic change and responding to disruptive technology.  

How broadly does the commission see the word ''infrastructure''?  

Along with our three focus areas, we're also considering the convergence of sectors.  

Te Waihangais looking at these sectors using a framework and working definition of infrastructure which we've set out in the discussion paper:  Infrastructure Under One Roof. This approach goes beyond steel and concrete and considers the role of infrastructure in improving New Zealander's wellbeing.

Infrastructure Under One Roof recognises that no one part of our infrastructure works by itself: our roads carry our pipes and powerlines and they connect us to social infrastructure like schools. It's a system, and Te Waihanga's job will be to identify how to get the most value from the system over the next 30 years to improve the lives of New Zealanders. 

What do you see as the critical challenges for the industry?  

There are significant challenges right across the board; that's why the establishment of the Infrastructure Commission was so essential. One example of the challenges we face is balancing the trade-offs we need to make when deciding whether or not to spend scarce resources on infrastructure – this is something New Zealand historically hasn't done very well.  

We still don't coordinate design disciplines effectively; we involve the supply-chain very late in the design process, and the quality of documentation produced is often poor.  

Building Consent Authorities are often left performing the design QA, which simply isn't their role – it's little wonder they're becoming more risk-averse.  

Ultimately the purpose of the 30-year strategy is to canvas the full range of issues and opportunities facing the industry and develop a coherent set of strategic responses to these.  

How does digital technology fit into infrastructure delivery?  

Technology has a huge role in the future of infrastructure planning, design, delivery and operation but we've been very slow adopters here in New Zealand. Over a decade ago, I was involved in establishing a Building Information Modelling (BIM) team at Mainzeal. Fast forward to 2019 and a healthcare project I was involved in reminded me that the industry as a whole has made very slow progress on the adoption of BIM. Our social infrastructure is often developed with the lowest cost technology rather than adopting the proven automation systems and data collection sensors necessary to deliver energy and water efficiency along with improved occupant comfort.  

Infrastructure is decades behind other sectors in the collection and use of data to inform better decision making at all levels of the value chain (project selection through to operational efficiency).  

Despite our generally low scorecard, there are some shining lights. During the Christchurch earthquake recovery, geotechnical information was captured and stored in a central database allowing other contributors to grow their understanding of ground conditions without having to collect primary data. The structural steel fabrication industry has taken the bull by the horns and captured a lot of value and productivity benefits from digitising and integrating the fabrication and design process. The water industry is actively engaged in a discussion about the development of common data standards. And our road maintenance computerised asset management system is unique as a universal tool across both central and local Government providing significantly enhanced opportunities to share information.

Ross Copland with children

Ross Copland with his kids on the ski field

What are the challenges for the consulting and engineering sector in 2021 and beyond?  

The challenge is how we can work together with the sector to articulate the value that can be delivered through better infrastructure to improve population health, lift economic productivity and all the other things that define 'wellbeing'.   

Te Waihanga is keen to be a supportive voice for the sector through the strategy and our work in major projects.  

I think the sector has a vital role to play in co-creating and implementing the strategy that Te Waihanga is developing. We need insights and experience from all parts of the industry, at a project, a program and sector leadership level. It's important to note that the strategy isn't ours; it's a strategy for all kiwis.  

We want to hear about the case studies and examples from the sector, to understand what's working well and what needs to change. We also need the industry to innovate and embrace change as we start to think differently about our future.  

What are you doing when you're not working?   

I love the outdoors, and I like to ski, fish, hunt, dive and ride bikes. My wife and I have two young children who are also keen on the outdoors.    

Connect with Ross Copland on LinkedIn