school pupils in a Nigerian classroom

$4 trillion of new infrastructure every year

More than $4 trillion of new infrastructure is needed worldwide each year. Pause on that number for a moment, then explore below.

$4,000,000,000,000 is a huge sum.

It represents $500 for every man, woman and child on the planet.

$4 trillion in global spending is required to meet the demand for housing, schools, hospitals, and all the paraphernalia of a modern economy. And the rate of development will need to keep going each year, given that over half of the urban area needed by 2030 has yet to be built. 

Quote by Kate Raworth that 60% of the urban area by 2030 yet to be built

As the built area grows, so do the paved roads, bridges, pipes, cables, and a plethora of infrastructure that modern society requires.

Most of the development will happen in Africa and parts of Asia that will see the highest population growth. 

All this is too vast to comprehend. It also assumes sufficient economic prosperity or debt to pay for it. But even if the spending declines or all needs are unmet, by 2050, the world will have more built area than it does today.

I have been around long enough to know exactly what this means.

Africa is not a country 

I remember a visit I made to Uganda in the late 1980s. 

Maribou storks roosted on the tall buildings in the capital Kampala and the potholes in the city’s roads swallowed vehicles whole, but the people smiled wide and warmly welcomed the white scientist. The rickety Kenya Airways 707 that brought me into Entebbe airport from Nairobi parked next to a gleaming British Airways 747, an alien creature that dwarfed everything, including the terminal, a tiny concrete building. 

It wouldn’t today as the terminal buildings sprawl across the landscape. The airport is still small by international standards but has grown over the years as part of global infrastructure spending.

Google earth image of Entebbe airport, Uganda

Imagine telling that story to the villagers of the region 130 years ago after they encountered John Hanning Speke and Richard Francis Burton in 1856 on their East Africa expedition to find the Great Lakes.

Metal birds, concrete and buildings made of stone were as alien as the pale skinned men with weird gourds on their heads.

Colonialism, religion, and racist ideology were not the only things white men brought to Africa, they also carried the knowledge of infrastructure with them.

It is Africa where much of the 60% urban expansion Raworth quotes will be needed. 

It happens so fast

Blink and you will miss it is the message here.

Infrastructure is going up everywhere at dramatic rates. Even in developed countries, some changes might not be obvious but go away for a while, and even established cities look a bit different when you return.

Botswana is a small country with just over 2.36 million people in 2020. It has few of the population problems that trouble most African nations. But when I went to work there in 1989, just 30 years ago, there were 1.24 million people.

The Batswana are big on education. The teacher is as revered as village elders, and the government has invested in education, including new schools. Around 27% of the population are school-age children so, in the 30 years since my time there, Botswana has needed an additional 300,000 school places. Assuming each school has 1,000 students, this means 300 new schools to keep all the children in the classroom.  

This is the blink. 

Back in 1989, the population of Nigeria was 92.79 million; in 2020 it was 206.1 million. Assuming similar proportions of school-age children, the Nigerian government had to build infrastructure for an additional 79 million students or 79,000 schools.

A blink but also a monumental challenge.

drone image of suburban Accra, the largest city in Ghana
Photo by Virgyl Sowah on Unsplash

Accra is the capital and largest city of Ghana, with a population of 5,455,692 inhabitants in the 2021 census.

What type of infrastructure?

A key point that Kate Raworth made in her fascinating Doughnut Economics is that how this infrastructure is built has a huge impact on the environmental costs and on the well-being of the people who inherit the buildings and roads.

The volume of change in the built infrastructure is daunting. However, there is nothing quite like the demand for places to live and work. It screams opportunity that has developers and entrepreneurs lining up to get on with all the heavy lifting. And they are always in a hurry, given that time is money.

What is needed is a virtual pause to consider questions like this one.

Schools are needed, but what type, where and with what materials?

Answers considering the context, materials and risks will make a difference to future resilience and prosperity. For example, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) found that using natural infrastructure to protect against climate breakdown could save up to $248bn (£180bn) a year globally, costing only about half as much as equivalent built infrastructure and delivering the same protection.

The term “natural infrastructure” refers to naturally occurring landscape features and/or nature-based solutions that promote, use, restore or emulate natural ecological processes.

What sustainably FED suggests

Humans are insatiable.

We cannot help ourselves in betterment. Getting and being more is hardwired into our psyche because back in the day if we slacked off, we perished. 

We can survive with less and even find true happiness doing it, but the basic needs must still be met. And we currently do this with infrastructure. 

Indeed, we could not meet the basic needs of 8 billion people without it.

Building it will cost money and use resources.

Hero image from photo by Emmanuel Ikwuegbu on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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