Ports for SDGs: An Ecosystem Perspective on Infrastructure Megaprojects

Johan Ninan

cargo ship with carrying containers on a river
Port of Rotterdam undertakes multiple efforts to meet sustainability goals (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Infrastructure megaprojects have long been a subject of debate in relation to sustainability. These massive undertakings often result in inefficiencies during project delivery, affect local communities, and contribute to carbon emissions throughout their lifecycle (Söderlund, Sankaran & Biesenthal, 2017). However, there is room for these projects to better integrate into society and create more value for society (Ninan et al., 2023). As Johan Ninan argues in this blog, taking the Port of Rotterdam as example, infrastructure megaprojects can also serve as catalysts for sustainability by actively contributing to the achievement of multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The United Nations’ SDGs officially came into force on 1 January 2016, marking the beginning of a fifteen-year journey to achieve the ambitious targets set forth in the UN’s 2030 Agenda (Papas, 2017). Together, they represent a global call to action to address the most pressing economic, social and environmental challenges facing our world. Infrastructure, comprising transportation, energy, water supply and more, forms the backbone of modern societies and therefore plays a pivotal role in shaping the sustainable future we aspire to create. Infrastructure projects support economic growth and also advance social inclusion, environmental protection and climate resilience. Thus, there is a symbiotic relationship between the SDGs and infrastructure development, as these projects stand as crucial enablers for achieving multiple goals. My research focuses on understanding the role of infrastructure megaprojects in achieving SDGs, particularly by studying nearly 150 interventions carried out by the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands over a period of one year. Data for this was retrieved from the public social media platform ‘X’ (formerly Twitter), for the period of 1 January 2021 to 31 December 2021. By adopting an ecosystem perspective, I examine how these megaprojects trigger ripple effects throughout interconnected ecosystems and play a vital role in facilitating transitions towards sustainable goals.

As one of the world’s largest and busiest ports, the Port of Rotterdam serves as an exemplary case study for assessing the sustainability potential of infrastructure megaprojects (Dooms, Van der Vlugt & De Langen, 2013). Rotterdam’s strategic port location and historical significance have positioned it as a key player in global trade and logistics. Over the years, the port has initiated numerous interventions aimed at enhancing its operations while simultaneously addressing sustainability challenges. These interventions are driven by the port’s aims to be emission-free by the year 2050 (Port of Rotterdam, 2022). Analysing these interventions provides valuable insights into the multifaceted impacts of megaprojects and their potential contributions to SDGs. This research relies on data gathered from online social media sources, relevant to study practices in the modern digital era (Ninan, 2020), in order to enable a comprehensive understanding of the port’s activities and their relevance to sustainability. An ecosystem perspective recognizes that changes initiated by a megaproject can have far-reaching consequences that extend beyond the project site. Just as disturbances in one part of an ecosystem can impact the entire ecosystem, megaprojects can trigger cascading effects in various domains related to sustainability.

Research findings show that the port of Rotterdam contributes to multiple SDGs. These can be broadly classified into clean energy and climate action, knowledge generation and innovation, economic growth and sustainable cities, and partnership building for sustainable goals, as detailed below:

  1. Clean Energy and Climate Action (SDG 7 and SDG 13): The Port of Rotterdam has been actively involved in the development of renewable energy infrastructure, such as wind farms and solar installations. These initiatives not only reduce the port’s carbon footprint, but also contribute to the broader goal of transitioning to clean energy sources. Moreover, by facilitating the import and distribution of clean energy resources, the port indirectly supports the global transition to renewable energy, thereby aligning with SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) and SDG 13 (Climate Action).
  2. Knowledge Generation and Innovation (SDG 9): Infrastructure megaprojects often require cutting-edge technology and innovation, leading to advancements that benefit society as a whole. Research highlights the role of the Port of Rotterdam in driving knowledge generation and innovation. For instance, the development of automated cargo handling systems and smart logistics solutions not only enhances the port’s efficiency, but also serves as a source of technological innovation that can be applied in other sectors. This knowledge sharing can contribute to sustainable economic growth and help bridge the global technology gap, aligning with SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure).
  3. Economic Growth and Sustainable Cities (SDG 8 and SDG 11): Infrastructure megaprojects can act as engines for economic growth, directly impacting SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth). The Port of Rotterdam’s expansion and modernization projects have created jobs, attracted investments, and stimulated economic development in the region. This economic growth, when managed sustainably, can also contribute to building sustainable cities (SDG 11), by funding infrastructure, affordable housing and social services.
  4. Partnership Building for Sustainable Goals (SDG 17): The achievement of SDGs often requires collaboration and partnerships between various stakeholders, including governments, businesses and civil society. The Port of Rotterdam actively engages in partnerships to address sustainability challenges. For instance, collaborations with research institutions and environmental organisations aim to find innovative solutions to reduce environmental impacts and enhance biodiversity. These partnerships exemplify how infrastructure megaprojects can foster cooperation towards common sustainability goals, aligning with SDG 17 (Partnerships for the Goals).

Thus, when viewed through an ecosystem perspective, infrastructure megaprojects can play a pivotal role in achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and enhancing resilience within cities. The case study of the Port of Rotterdam illustrates how interventions by megaprojects can trigger positive ripple effects in domains such as clean energy, climate action, knowledge generation, economic growth, sustainable cities, innovation and partnership building for sustainable goals. By embracing this perspective, researchers, policymakers and stakeholders can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the multifaceted impacts of megaprojects in shaping a sustainable future. Together with involved countries, organisations and communities, infrastructure megaprojects, such as the Port of Rotterdam in this case, can also have a significant role in enabling a sustainable world. More research from multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder perspectives needs to be carried out to understand the concrete processes through which infrastructure megaprojects contribute to sustainable development. It is clear that with the right strategies and a commitment to sustainability, infrastructure megaprojects can turn into powerful agents of positive change on the paths to a more sustainable world.

Dr. Johan Ninan (J.Ninan@tudelft.nl) is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, TU Delft. His research primarily focuses on the transdisciplinary design of infrastructure, with a key emphasis on engaging stakeholders from diverse disciplinary backgrounds to achieve societal impact. The areas of his study encompass stakeholder engagement, collaboration, innovation, resilience, information and communication technology (ICT), and project organising. He particularly emphasises the significance of social media in infrastructure projects and utilises online naturalistic data from an organisational power theoretical perspective.
This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures research community. It reflects the evolving thoughts of the author and expresses the discussions between researchers on the socio-economic, spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. This blog was edited by the PortCityFutures editorial team: Vincent Baptist.

Dooms, M., Van Der Lugt, L., & De Langen, P. W. (2013). “International Strategies of Port Authorities: The Case of the Port of Rotterdam Authority.” Research in Transportation Business & Management 8, 148-57. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rtbm.2013.06.004.

Ninan, J. (2020). “Online Naturalistic Inquiry in Project Management Research: Directions for Research.” Project Leadership and Society 1(1), 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.plas.2020.100002.

Ninan, J., et al. (2023). “Governance through Trust: Community Engagement in an Australian City Rebuilding Precinct.” Project Management Journal (OnlineFirst). https://doi.org/10.1177/87569728231182045.

Papas, M. (2017). “The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement—Taking Urgent Action to Combat Climate Change: How Is Australia Likely to Fare?” Asia Pacific Journal of Environmental Law 20(1), 94-114. https://doi.org/10.4337/apjel.2017.01.04.

Port of Rotterdam (2022). “The Port of Rotterdam Is Working on Shore Power.” Accessed on 2 November 2023. https://www.portofrotterdam.com/en/news-and-press-releases/the-port-of-rotterdam-is-working-on-shore-power.

Söderlund, J., Sankaran, S., & Biesenthal, C. (2017). “The Past and Present of Megaprojects.” Project Management Journal 48(6), 5-16. https://doi.org/10.1177/875697281704800602.