The World Bank/International Monetary Fund spring meeting this weekend will undoubtedly become mired in the sort of "the sky is falling, will the world economy stall again?" blather that we have been hearing since 2008.

The utterly exhausted financial leaders are correct in that something must be done. Projected growth in advanced economies stands at only 1.6 percent through 2020, compared to 2.25 percent between 2001 and 2007. In emerging markets, the picture becomes relatively worse at 5.2 percent, which is less than the 6.5 percent average from 2008 through 2014. Latin America will grow less than 1 percent this year.

Their answer this time, just like the last time, is to "invest in infrastructure!"

Great idea, but do these spent bankers understand the limits of building great undertakings in countries where they are seen as private monuments, where the necessary political power is virtually nonexistent and where their credibility is almost nil?


In a modern global economy, the process of developing concepts that require 10 years to prepare, four years to construct and then serve for 30 to 50 years is rich and complex. International officials are unfortunately trapped in a very old model that consistently overpromises and under-delivers.

Here is how to get them out of the current rut.

First, for the last two decades, global decision-makers have defined infrastructure as a private good when the world's voters have consistently said the opposite. The wealthy should not own public works as if they were private property. At the same time, infrastructure should welcome private investment, which would inject funds, creativity and proper management into a country's critical assets. Everyone can become involved. Why can't private citizens buy shares in the revolutionary projects of tomorrow for $100 or less if they are such great deals?

Second, the decline in investment has been accompanied by a decline in government efficacy. "Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government," Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers. How did we get so far away from such a basic concept? Constructing new enterprises in a sustained robust manner — a decades-long effort that is uncontainable within a two-year election cycle — demands public leadership that is incredibly competent. Creating professional and non-politicized organizations led by executives with expertise in roads and bridges, in water and waterways, or in power and natural gas makes sense as a strategy for reenergizing government.

Third, technology changes everything. The Boston Consulting Group offers a wonderful graph that demonstrates productivity increasing at a 45-degree angle over the last 50 years in sectors such as healthcare and retail, while a flat line represents productivity in infrastructure. A terrific illustration of the issue is that of Aecom, a leading engineering firm, and Apple, a worldwide disruptive tech company. Each employs some 100,000 people, but Apple's market cap is 167 times that of Aecom. The infrastructure business needs to expose itself to the promise of technology, including crowdsourcing design and location ideas, as well as crowdfunding.

Fourth, the industry demands a revolution in metrics that define performance. Narrow financial returns currently determine project selection. As one developing country policymaker told me, "That means investors just skim the cream off the top" and dismiss more difficult ventures that have much greater long-term economic benefits. Spending on water and wastewater has declined by 75 percent in emerging markets over the last two decades, ignoring the enormous long-term socioeconomic benefits for women and children. In transportation, Spain's high-speed rail line from Madrid to Barcelona with a stop in Valladolid has rejuvenated an entire city.

Fifth, infrastructure needs a vision to drive investment forward. Every nation that has realized a successful initiative over the last two decades — from Singapore to China and Chile to Spain — has moved forward by promising to improve the country's success. The Bible says that "where there is no vision, the people perish." The corollary with infrastructure is that "without vision, projects don't happen." Countries need a consensus ideal that guides decision-making and that when implemented will successfully generate jobs, opportunities and growth.

Climbing out of global economic stagnation requires a paradigm shift from private to public; from low energy to high energy; from low-tech to high-tech; from short- to long-term; and from tomorrow to the next generation.

Reframing infrastructure investment would finally shake it loose from the hands of tired financial elites and create a future in which beneficiaries around the world can embrace, participate and create their own prosperity.

Anderson is the president and CEO of CG/LA Infrastructure, a nonpartisan global consulting firm based in Washington, an adjunct professor in the School of Engineering at Columbia University and a member of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Infrastructure.