Feasibility of an Infrastructure

train infra

A huge part of infrastructure development work upfront is the feasibility study. What exactly goes into a full feasibility study and why is it so important? This article aims to explain that simply and more accessibly to people outside the industry. We’ll focus on the feasibility study rather than any documentation on projects generated prior to that (sometimes called pre-Feasibility Study – which could be considered a ‘lite’ version).

The feasibility study is like a professional evaluation of a business plan. For any infrastructure project, this is a comprehensive look into all the practical, legal, technical and commercial aspects of the project. Often, it will include social and environmental dimensions of the project in order to ensure that the lenders (ie. financial institutions providing debt to the project) is satisfied. In markets where there is significant social and environmental activism, the lenders are also on the receiving end of hate-mail, harassment and boycotts. Major project finance lenders internationally have therefore got together to be involved in The Equator Principles – a risk management framework that banks sign up to abide in assessing the environment, social risks involved in projects.

What then constitutes environment and social risks?

Infrastructure projects are physical, and will almost always require clearing of a piece of land to allow construction to take place. This would mean either resettling villages, people, farms, or redeveloping urban spaces, or even clearing swathe of rainforest. In cases of large hydropower dams, it will involve spaces not only for construction of the dam but also planned floodplains which can include multiple villages, broad swathe of forests. All of these impacts on human lives, biodiversity, alters natural landscapes.

Of course, the banks, developers, and builders care about people and rainforests. But beyond that, they are concerned about being harassed, haunted by NGOs, activist organisations trying to run them down reputationally for having been involved in projects that destroyed natural habitats for endangered species, upsetting livelihoods. These forms the environment and social risks; and the feasibility study tend to cover aspects of the social and environmental impact assessment, as well as to propose means to mitigate. Through that, the developers of the project also forms an idea how much resources they might need to expend to support resettlement, to help rebuild livelihoods destroyed.

How about practical and technical risks?

The feasibility study also goes into the technical and practical aspects of the project, including studying the possible technologies to deploy, the actual site conditions: whether the land can accommodate the infrastructure, whether there is actually sufficient demand for that infrastructure, and if the infrastructure has everything needed to service that demand – this could take the form of water supply pipe network, or an inter-connector to the national grid for a power plant.

The study needs to ensure that the proposed technical solution is able to deal with the problem statement at hand. For example, if we are using incineration for the waste, then we have to ensure that the waste stream is not too moist. If the waste is wet, the incineration system may not perform properly, which leads to potential technical breakdowns or stoppage.

And not forgetting the legal and commercial risks?

At the end of the day, the project will have to comply with the law of the land, and often, there will be a lot of permitting, licensing, government approvals that are needed for various components of the project. The feasibility study will investigate all of these and the developers will also do their best to make sure the requisite approvals and permits are obtain in advanced even often in parallel with the feasibility study just to make sure that the project is progressing in a timely fashion. These documentation will often be studied alongside the feasibility studies by the lenders.

Lots of parameters, and results from various aspects of the feasibility study would be captured into the financial model that is used to work out whether the project is commercially viable – that is, the total revenues/payments expected for the lifetime of the project is able to pay for its total cost over its lifetime. Governments may also undertake an economic cost-benefit analysis, to see if the total economic benefit of the infrastructure project is able to cover the total cost to society (more on this from a previous article I’ve written).

At the end of the day, flagging out, assessing and then measuring these risks enables the developers, lenders, and the government to have a better picture of how viable the project really is, hence its feasibility – from the various risks perspective as well as the resourcing that can be availed to the project. Doing proper feasibility studies can also help government better plan areas surrounding infrastructure, whether it is to mitigate some of the impacts of the infrastructure, but also to see if developments around the infrastructure can help improve its feasibility (eg. a larger substation might have to be built in the area to be able to accommodate a large utility scale solar park which would not have been able to feed power into the national grid).

This article is part of a series I’m working on to make topics in infrastructure a little more accessible to students and people from outside the industry who might want to get involved.

Coercion of Free Markets

Inequality is a market failure. We do pick this up in A Levels but then there’s little discourse on that. Not only do we dwell little on the solutions – which ranges from progressive taxation to welfare handouts – we ultimately ignore how inequality undermines the ultimate roles of markets, which is the efficient allocation of resources. I’ve always grasp the idea rather intuitively but then fail to deliver it in a philosophical and economics framework. I’ve pointed out the lack of philosophical musings in today’s study of Economics when I introduced Michael Sandel’s lecture on Markets and Morals.

I’ve always pose the question to my Economics student, if a person earns $1000 a month and another who earns $1 a month both needs a glass of water. The rich guy is willing to pay $10 for the water while the poor one is willing to pay $1. The market thus allocates the water to the rich man. We all know that this allocation is problematic and it doesn’t seem efficient; how is it that, in terms of willingness to pay, a person who is only willing to part with 1% of his monthly income gets the good when another is willing to part with 100% of his monthly income for it? So what exactly is the problem of inequality?

Once again, Michael Sandel points this out in the second lecture presented in this video. You don’t exactly have to watch the lecture in order to grasp the point but the idea is that when inequality (in terms of unequal distribution of income) exists, effective demand cannot properly reflect the ideal sort of demand signal transmission that would allow the market to allocate resources efficiently. In extreme cases, free markets becomes not entirely free. In other words, people are not transacting out of their free will but coerced by their own economic circumstances. We see this very often in the case of poor people in developing countries who are forced to sell organs, resort to prostitution, act as surrogate mothers, become a runner for crack.

Gary Becker is not wrong about the rationality of these people. They’re making rational choices but it is often that their choices is very much limited. That unfeeling market processes coerce us into certain decisions is something close to the hearts of all of us. Often, however, we can’t quite work out what is so unjust about that because we believe that to a large extent, we determine our riches. Somehow, deep in our hearts we know that some other decisions that we made caused us to be in the state we are in such that we are coerced into making that next decision. The fact that this argument comes back to us shows how each and every decision made in the marketplace by us are not independent. This makes for a determinism argument in a market setting where free will is supposed to reign.

There are much wider implications of all these arguments and I shall explore them if I get the chance.

Morality of Markets

I’ve previously introduced Michael Sandel’s lectures on Justice in Harvard. I haven’t finished the series despite great interest in it but I recently watched another of his lectures, one at Chautauqua where he talks about the Morality of Markets. In some sense, I was particularly interested in this issue and believe that all those trained in Economics should be made to study it. After all, Adam Smith was a Moral Philosopher. The philosophical element of Economics is becoming lost in our study of it today.

Markets Corrupts?

That is what makes this particular Michael Sandel lecture extremely insightful. He starts with the idea that we’re now plagued by market triumphalism and he tries to question what is wrong with that. As often in his lectures, he poses a scenario either hypothetical or based on actual proposals in the real world and then solicits opinions from the audience. He eventually surfaces his points and ideas from the responses of the audience and does a brilliant summary of the issue.

He gives a good and important point in his conclusion of this lecture that explains why we should not allow markets to expand indefinitely in our lives. In other words, there are areas where markets can, indeed serve the best interests of the societies especially when we all can agree that the market system gives an accurate and fair valuation of the good or service involved. Unfortunately there are values out of the consideration of the market that we might cherish and therefore we should not allow particular goods or services to become commodities to be traded and transacted. The danger of the markets is that it leaves its mark on the commodities that are traded; the values that we cherish becomes diluted, corrupted by the market system.

The example of paying a child to read is important in illustrating this. We should cherish reading not because of the monetary gains but the intrinsic value derived from joy of reading and learning. Therefore when we start paying children to read, it sends out the wrong messages and distorts the valuation of reading. The trick then, perhaps is a solution around this limitation of the market, to be able to remove that mark that market leaves on the thing traded. Unfortunately there’s no easy solution and possibly none. This is a strong argument against markets and while it is applied to a small group of tricky issues, they are worth pondering over.

Michael Sandel makes Political Philosophy and Moral Philosophy not only accessible to the public and ordinary, non-philosophy students but also makes extremely relevant connections between traditional Western Philosophy and the issues plaguing us in the modern world. It’s really fortunate that we are able to access his lectures even though we are not studying in Harvard or in America. There are other videos of his public lectures available on FORA.tv.

Wrong Concoction

Historically, technological advancement combined with economics have helped to push civilization towards greater levels of achievements; yet too often, there are times when they are combined in the wrong ways that produces somewhat problematic results for the aggregate society. An example would be the problem of counterfeit products, which is recently featured in The Economist. Interestingly it has extended beyond just luxury goods, luxury consumer electronics to the more sophisticated stuff like cars, computer and machine parts. The chief argument against counterfeits is not so much that they are unsafe. As technology advance, counterfeits that are of low quality would naturally be abandon by the market anyways. The reason for the market’s embrace is a result of their avoidance of taxes and the willingness to accept lower margins, which allows them to price way more competitively.

Another time when technological advancement is combined with skewed human intentions is the gender-based abortion that The Economist is hinting at. The distorted sex ratio have potentially disastrous consequences on society at large. Unfortunately the imbalance is already a fact and will take at least a generation to restore some balance so in the meantime we will probably have to put up with way lower rates of marriages (if rates sustain, it would only be because divorce rates have also been increasing; which implies re-marriages).

Well, more arguments for big governments, or if not, intrusive ones.

Search and Research

Looking Up the Web

It has been a long time since I wrote something about handling school work and such. I’ve been working on a couple of articles for some external parties and doing quite a lot of research and writing. The experience can be frustrating and tiring as I plow through loads of data, informative material and readings and then get lost in bits of thoughts here and there, never settling down to write. Such is research, you ask a few simple questions that you expect could be answered with a sentence or two but end up having loads of related answers and information that leads you to the fact that answers you’re looking for is way more complex. Then you realise you have got to put together evidence for each of your claims and explanations. People were asking me how I manage all that stuff, I told them that you’ve got to work out a plan somehow.

So in this article, I’d be discussing my method of planning writing and research. It’s by no means a definitive answer to managing your research or school projects but it might be an option you’d like to choose. I’m writing very generally about the kind of information research that leads to writing a paper/article; the sort that doesn’t require you to don on a lab coat and hold up test-tubes.

Ultimate Tool

I recommend that before you start using Google, lay out some fundamental questions your paper/article would answer or specific information it will provide. It can be as general as an overview to a topic, or as specific as the number of petrol kiosk in a particular town. After listing them out, mark out the more specific questions and then hunt for the data first. These are usually the data sets you are going to use to introduce a particular claim or to support your theories. If there’s no such data available then you can find other proxy indicators or try and switch the type of evidence. It is important that you start off checking for the availability of the data you need or whatever you’re going to write would be groundless anyways.

After gathering the data you need, hunt for general articles on the topic that you are working on. These are the articles that refer to other more specific sources for information, or sites like Answers.com and Wikipedia. They serve as a directory for the topic and also to alert you or anything about the issue/topic that you might have overlooked. Often, these can also be blog entries that link up articles of related topic, much like the ones on ERPZ. When you’re clear you have a general idea of the topic and know briefly the issues involved, start planning your writing, listing the arguments, the progression of arguments and the sequence you present information to make your case. Often, some information you will need to provide are things you are not necessarily aware of, perhaps the revenue of a particular firm, the market share in an industry, or the response of a CEO to a recent affair. These are the stuff you didn’t initially set out to include but subsequently find rather significant.

Armed with the plan, start searching specifically for the information you need and formulate/sharpen your arguments according to these information. Unknowingly, you have actually slashed down the amount of content that you’ve read. By using general articles as signposts for your planning, you have drawn up the parameters of your research, something difficult when you’ve not read up anything or done any research. This explains the preliminary research into key and essential data you need as well as the general articles to get you started. The rest of your writing would build around these anchors that you’ve found in the beginning.

Then, follow through your plan as you write. This works for any volume of research, those that takes days to weeks and possibly months. For the ones where data sets have to be built from scratch either through ripping apart official statistics or carrying out your own surveys, the process would be placed between preliminary research and the ultimate planning. So happy searching and re-searching!

Blended Value

House Money
Into the Blender!

Just when people are lambasting financial institutions and entities like hedge funds, Jed Emerson who coined the concept of ‘Blended Value‘, suggests that these financial entities can play a positive social role. Fast Company had an interview with him about this in 60 seconds.

As reported on Economist Online, Jed thinks that hedge funds which focuses on fundamentals mirrors sustainably investing, meaning that they would act to move capital to places where they are used properly and for good of the society.

Trading according to rigorous fundamental research can often mirror sustainable investing, which seeks to profit by taking into account social and environmental factors, he says. Fundamental hedge funds are far more likely than other investors to try to identify a firm’s off-balance-sheet exposures, of which a growing proportion may be “environmental or social liabilities present in a market or company but not explicitly accounted for in traditional numeric valuation or mainstream investor analysis”.

He makes an important point about ‘Shorting’, which The Economist goes on to discuss. As a matter of fact, the market is kind of biased towards growth and that should be the case since the economy is usually growing but then if people are not rational enough to sell, then there has to be short-sellers who are rational enough to sell but don’t have the shares in the first place. This way, buying and selling would reflect a more fundamental value. This is of course, an ideal – prices hardly reflect any reality in moments. But at least we know that the bulls and the bears are almost right the same number of times (half of the time each; which reflects dynamism of the market). And so there’s no way we should have anything against them.

Googley Social

Surpassing Yahoo! Search directory and indexes a decade ago, they let you search things online, things that you probably never will manage to find by trying out random keywords followed by “.com” on the URL bar. Not losing out to Hotmail which offered 2MB and Yahoo! Mail which offered 3.5MB during the ‘good old days’, they started an email system that gives you several Gigabytes of space in your inbox, which was virtually unheard of during those days.

And though Facebook took and lead in social networks and and proved that it is going to be revolutionizing the web and business world somehow, Google has decided to join in the fun. The public profile page is like a lite version of Facebook’s profile page and Buzz’s advantage over Google Wave (which haven’t seem to take off at all; I don’t really use it though I have an account and plenty of inactive friend on it) is that you don’t require a ‘separate’ sort of account with Google, it comes right in your Gmail system.

And the success of introducing this feature as part of the Gmail system is reflected by the fact that millions of users responded with feedbacks and concerns. Google is using its size to its advantage this time and their fine-tuning and feedback gathering process is going to be important, just as it is for any new products. That’s probably why they should lend a ear to what Farhad Manjoo have to say on Slate.com about What’s Wrong With Android?


Social Networks
Start the Chatter

Social networks have been rising for some time now. And while they initially started out as mere toys for youngsters, there have been talks of higher degrees of commercialization, how these networks will change the lifestyle of people, and so on. Now that the change has taken place somewhat, it makes sense for The Economist to tabulate some of the impacts these networks have brought in.

To begin, these networks have definitely became an important way people communicate; however mundane or skimpy each little piece of content may be, they are viewed by many people within your network and it broadcasts bits of information about you that couldn’t have been captured in the yesteryears. This is true for the comments you cast, the status messages you post, the photos and videos you uploaded and all the social games that you play. Although online social networks remain essentially much like a bulletin board (except viewership ability of contents are more strictly controlled and with richer content) and thus does little to enrich people’s ability to do real networking, it does a wonderful job at augmenting our real relationships.

This strong link with the real world is a great strength for online social networks. Websites are viewed as corporate facades that give little information about the reality of the companies. On the other hand, the pages for these firms on social networking sites are viewed as better avenues for firms to communicates with their customers. Likewise, a corporate site announcement of a promotion the company is offering does less to boost sales compared to a tweet which might have much more followers.

That is the free advertising service that sites like Twitter and Facebook might offer, which brings us to the question of how money is being made on such networks. A peach of an opportunity, an article in The Economist special report on social networks gives us an idea what are the businesses that taps into the plumbing of social network connections and thriving. For all the talk about connecting with friends, being entertained by your online pets, or having a good laugh from the video your friend has shared, businesses might be the greatest benefactor of this trend.

Culture & Phones

Indian Torch

Trapped on our little island of Singapore, we hardly wonder what our handphones are capable of; here in Singapore we typically use it to text, call, surf, as a phone book to retrieve contact details of people, a personal organizer and even a camera. Singaporeans makes extensive use of their phones and our preferences are varied, a reflection of our melting pot of diversity. And as the briefing in the latest issue of The Economist shows, mobile phones are indeed a great reflection of the culture of the people using them.

The article mentioned a couple of interesting quirks about people using mobile phones around the world:

Japanese use their phones to text and surf intensively because using phones to make or receive calls on board trains and some other public places are thought to be extremely rude.

Spaniards reject voicemail because they think it’s rude not to receive calls from others when they call, even when the receiver is busy with matters.

Chinese will interrupt conversations to receive calls because they are afraid to that they’d miss a business deal; at the same time they use knock-offs handphones that often have extensive functions, even capable of using two SIM cards.

Americans are willing to endure limited cellular coverage; perhaps fearing the hassle involved in changing operators.

Italians, Greeks and Finns would switch operators if they find their coverage limited and yet are fearful of the effects of electro-magnetic radiation, which probably is more ubiquitous than in America.

Indians use mobile phones as torchlights.

Africans usually use ‘beeping’ (ie. give the person a ring) to contact people and signal them to call back when they’re low on pre-paid credits.

Indeed, mobile phones are changing everyone’s lives everywhere; one just needs to know the name given to these devices in different societies and cultures to understand their importance. In fact, Iraqis thought more highly of the proliferation of mobile phones as a result of the American invasion than their supposed liberation.

Sites & Wares

Macheist rocks!

It’s been a while since ERPZ featured any Lifehack Tools and lately, I’ve found quite a lot of useful stuff so it would be great to share with readers and GTD enthusiasts.

Dropbox – File sharing/synchronization, online storage tool. Extremely useful for people with multiple computers and files to be shared between them.

Macheist – Mac Community that raise funds for charity and give you lots of great Mac Ware at amazing prices (sometimes free too).

Ninite.com – Multi-Apps installer; allows you to choose from a list of important “must-install” applications to be installed all at once on your computer. Especially useful when you just get a new computer or formatted your PC and want to have your favourite softwares installed fast.

Growl – Mac Notification tool, it’s basically an alert programme that seamlessly integrate with your mac and several other popular programmes.

Picnik – In case you haven’t realised, there’s are web-based image-editing tools and Picnik just happens to stand out particularly because it is speedy and extremely user friendly.

Quicksilver – It’s not easy to describe what Quicksilver does exactly but it’s basically a graphical shell that allows you to perform stuff on your Mac more quickly.