Sit Down with StateUp: Dr. Rehema Msulwa

In our new series ‘Sit Down with StateUp’, we’ll interview leading experts to hear their stories and share their insights focused on innovation, government and public purpose. First in the series is Dr. Rehema Msulwa, our own Expert Affiliate specialising in Infrastructure and the Built Environment.

Dr. Rehema Msulwa recently joined StateUp as an Expert Affiliate, bringing further expertise to our Infrastructure and Built Environment practice. An expert in megaproject infrastructure planning, Rehema is also a Research Associate at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, where she researches the nexus of where policy meets the design and delivery of capital-intensive infrastructure projects. Rehema has previous experience with organisations including Highways England, EDF Energy, Tideway, Heathrow, transport authorities and practitioners in India and Nigeria, and with the African Development Bank in Côte d’Ivoire. 

To welcome Rehema and get to know her a little better, StateUp Research Fellow Toluwanimi Segun sat down with Rehema to discuss her research interests, including spatial inequalities, the importance of infrastructure for productivity, and her aim to contribute to StateUp’s mission of bridging the gap between academic research and policy and industry decision-making. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

StateUp: How did you become interested in the intersection of policy, design and delivery of infrastructure projects?

I have always had a broad interest in development. During my Masters in Applied Economics at the University of Cape Town, I interned at South Africa’s statutory research body, the Human Sciences Research Council. There, I worked with Professor Ivan Turok, an economic geographer, on issues of spatial inequality (SI)–the unequal distribution of resources and services across different areas or locations–in the country. That got me interested in understanding the problem of SI and what it would take in terms of implementation and delivery to address it. So the broad interest in development was narrowed to a focus on SI. This led me to the University of Manchester where I studied the management and implementation of development projects. While there, I took great interest in a New Infrastructure Development course at Alliance Manchester Business School led by Professor Nuno Gil, who subsequently invited me to undertake both my Masters dissertation and PhD under his supervision. So, I went from a broad interest in development economics, to SI, to going beyond defining the problem and looking at the mechanisms for addressing it through infrastructure project planning and delivery. 

In possibly every research area there are raging debates that split opinion. What debate in your field do you feel has the most bearing on policy outcomes post-Covid? What side of the divide do you fall on?

One debate relates to the relative importance of infrastructure for productivity, growth and development. As the UK’s Industrial Strategy Council identified, there are a number of other important factors; social infrastructure and workforce skills and health, local geography, institutions and the composition of economic activity are all relevant levers.  Physical infrastructure is given a lot of attention and many question if this hyperfocus is necessary. As an infrastructure expert, I’m biased–I think physical infrastructure is fundamentally important because it contributes to people’s quality of life and enables economic activity. That said, physical infrastructure has to be delivered alongside complementary policies and plans to realise its intended benefits. 

“I think physical infrastructure is fundamentally important because it contributes to people’s quality of life and enables economic activity.”

It is easy to take infrastructure’s role for granted when looking at it from a place of privilege. I’m from Tanzania and was raised in South Africa where my research journey started. In both places there are clear disparities in terms of access to public services and utilities such as transport, electricity, water and sanitation. So, I’m very aware of the defining role of infrastructure. Similarly, as the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted, disparities in access to digital infrastructure will worsen SI both within and between countries.  In the debate on infrastructure versus everything else, I’d therefore reinforce the importance of infrastructure in people’s day to day lives.

What are some technologies and innovative approaches that are positively disrupting infrastructure design and delivery?

Although subject to debate, a key issue that is often raised within the infrastructure and construction space is the tendency for projects to be delivered over budget and late. Some question why such overruns are the norm when a lot of infrastructure-related activity is repetitive. One potential contributor is that digitalisation and the use of data are not as widespread or sophisticated as could be in infrastructure planning and delivery; they’re still starting out. What startups like nPlan are doing is collecting infrastructure project data which they feed to machine learning algorithms to forecast project delivery risks and identify areas where optimisation can maximise cost and time savings. The increasing use and importance of data is one innovation that has the potential to fundamentally improve the space. Another data-related development could see the value proposition of infrastructure moving from the bricks and mortar of an infrastructural asset to the data it generates over a long period of time. Shifts towards data as the source of value raise interesting questions about changes in infrastructure-related business models and patterns of ownership.

You mentioned the problem of infrastructure projects being delivered over budget and over schedule. Are there particular social dynamics that are associated with projects being delivered late? 

Part of this relates to collective action and the democratic processes associated with infrastructure decision making. You can envision a situation where multiple actors inform an infrastructure project. Everyone has an interest and wants this interest reflected in the project design. And so you have a process that unfolds involving bargaining, negotiation and often politics, “if you don’t do this then I won’t do that”, or “if you do this then I might stall the project”. So that can contribute to delays, increases in costs and design changes over time. In the extreme, you could do away with participatory processes of engagement altogether, so it’s just “the project is going ahead”, we won’t necessarily negotiate about your land if you own the land, “this is where the project is going to be, and that’s that”. Alternatively, one aspect of navigating these dynamics is managing and governing this bargaining process. Project professionals and decision-makers therefore face the sometimes challenging task of managing the process such that those impacted by the infrastructure project have an opportunity to share valuable information and input without the process becoming an end in itself. 

How important does it feel to you to bridge the gap between academic research and policy and industry decision-making? And why?

It’s absolutely important especially given that infrastructure development is such a practical area. So theorising and academic research has to be rooted in reality and in evidence if it is to contribute to progress in practice. A lot of infrastructure-related research in both business and technical schools is underpinned by a traditional project management perspective. This framing is important but limited in important respects – it is normative and reductive and therefore discounts the dynamic and systemic or collective nature of decision-making often associated with projects. In that sense, research plays an important role in both conceptualising infrastructure more broadly and advancing alternative frames in academia and in practice. As relates to social dynamics, for example, what are some of the constraints or tensions that would not be acknowledged within a normative frame but that would nonetheless affect project outcomes?  To address such questions, there definitely needs to be a synergy between the worlds of academic research, policy and industry, which makes the work that StateUp is doing indispensable.