Management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. believes massive sums of capital will be needed to keep up with the world's economic development—and private firms like Morgan Stanley and BlackRock are lining up to make money from the demand.
"We basically need to replace all the infrastructure stock on the face of the planet. It's an enormous amount—and then some," Robert Palter, co-head of McKinsey's global infrastructure practice, said Thursday at the Infrastructure Investor's LP Summit in New York City.
McKinsey estimates that $57 trillion of infrastructure investment is needed by 2030 to support economic growth expectations, mostly to finance roads, power and water-related projects.
Palter said the U.S. was increasingly warming to private capital to supplement government infrastructure spending, particularly at the state level. "We are at the early stages of a new market in infrastructure," he said.
At the same time, Palter warned that public-private partnerships—the kind that built new terminals at both New York City airports recently—would not be a "panacea" to funding shortfalls.
Regardless, investors are salivating at the opportunity.
Chris Koski, head of strategy at Morgan Stanley's $4 billion infrastructure investment unit, was bullish at the same event.
"There's a lot of interest in the infrastructure market now in energy-related opportunities, particularly in the midstream space in North America," Koski said following his keynote presentation. "In Europe, opportunities are mostly the result of deleveraging, capex requirements and regulatory changes. And in the developed markets of the Asia-Pacific region, privatizations are driving most of the deal flow."
Recent investments by Morgan Stanley's infrastructure business include Chicago's parking meter system in 2009; Spanish gas company Madrileña Red de Gas in 2010; and British water company Affinity Water in 2012.
But Koski warned that infrastructure plays weren't without risk.
"It surprises me that there are pockets of institutional investors that think making money from infrastructure is so easy. If it's done poorly, it can be disastrous," he said.
Koski's comments came in front of an audience that included representatives from the New York State Common Retirement Fund, the Alberta Teacher's Retirement Fund, the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System and many other pensions and endowments. Some were looking to find more direct investment opportunities while others need money managers like banks or private equity firms to do it for them.
Most investors presenting at the conference—including Canadian pension Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec and Australian sovereign wealth manager Future Fund—said they were pleased with their infrastructure investment returns already. At least one large money manager pitching clients at the event said a good target rate of return was between 12 percent and 15 percent.
(Read more: Governments 'plug funding gap' in major projects)
Morgan Stanley was joined as an event sponsor by Credit Suisse, Starwood Energy Group, BlackRock and others.
"What we've looked at is where we've seen some structural shift underway. It's creating large, scalable, investable opportunity," said Jim Barry, head of BlackRock's infrastructure investing group.
BlackRock, the largest money manager in the world at $4.1 trillion in assets, launched its infrastructure business in 2011 with a focus on renewable power equity and infrastructure debt in Europe and North America. BlackRock invest directly in projects and also via a fund of funds.
(Read more: Private equity's growing play: Africa)
—By CNBC's Lawrence Delevingne. Follow him on Twitter @ldelevingne.