Making informed infrastructure decisions

UKCRIC's guidance on implementing significant infrastructure changes
Making informed infrastructure decisions
UKCRIC Director, Research Integration (University of Birmingham)

UKCRIC is establishing world-leading research capabilities with the ambition to transform our infrastructure and city systems, making them more sustainable, resilient, liveable, adaptable and smart.

A range of insights, processes and tools are available to help those responsible for designing, constructing, operating and refining our infrastructure and city systems to make better informed decisions. Any such decision should be founded on a strong evidence base, which is what EPSRC​, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI, which covers all UK Research Councils) and other research funders aim to establish. However, it is clear that evidence alone is not enough to bring about change. 

UKCRIC has therefore compiled some guidance in the form of a series of steps that draw on the evidence base to enable significant infrastructure changes to be properly developed. A vital step is to identify the complete range of potential benefits that could be delivered by adopting alternative engineering approaches, while taking into account a full understanding of the context in which the intervention is to be made. Only then can an adequate case for change be made.

However, change can only be brought about by compiling a business model – or rather a number of alternative business models – that balance all of the positive consequences (economic, social, environmental, political) with all of the negative consequences (which includes the financial investment required), both now and reaching into the future. A civil engineering intervention might be expected to function for decades, so its efficacy in the far future needs to be assessed. Finally, the formal and informal rules of governance, ranging from legislation and regulation through to societal attitudes and behaviours, need to be explored and, where necessary, changes must be made to ensure that the business models deliver the desired outcomes.

The key points are summarised below, and full guidance document, including references to all relevant research, can be downloaded here.

  • To address a specific problem in a city, assemble a broad, multi-disciplinary, multi-sectoral group of potentially interested parties who are able to represent the views of all stakeholders affected by the problem and its potential solutions, and provide each with the same opportunity to contribute.
  • Take time to understand the aspirations of the city and its citizens, noting that the city has several roles to play, and understand the context in which the city exists (both its history as well as its current context).
  • Fully diagnose the problems, being aware that there are various motivations for doing so; for example, that engineers tend to focus upon solutions to problems while social scientists tend to focus upon problem exploration.
  • Establish the baseline performance of the city in terms of its sustainability, resilience and liveability.
  • Apply ingenuity to create solutions to the problem, yielding a number of alternatives from which to choose the most appropriate. Provide intellectual leadership and seek global collaborations.
  • Assess the impact of the interventions on the city’s urban and infrastructure systems using one of the many sustainability assessment frameworks, resilience frameworks and liveability frameworks.
  • Conduct a futures analysis to explore whether the interventions are resilient to future contextual change, i.e., they will continue to deliver their benefits and prove to be a good investment into the long-term.
  • Simulate present and future need for infrastructure services and create infrastructure policies and plans to meet those needs via a system-of-systems methodology, consider making use of DAFNI’s data, modelling, simulation and visualisation facilities.
  • Make the case for change – establish a compelling ‘business case’ for the proposed intervention, based on the primary purpose and sustainability, resilience and liveability considerations.
  • Develop a suite of alternative ‘business models’ that capture the different forms of value that might be generated by the intervention, set against the investment required to implement it – identify all potential positive and negative consequences (e.g. cost) of the intervention.
  • Understand all of the dimensions of governance relevant to the intervention and the context in which it is to be implemented, and engineer changes to all of these systems so the intervention can be implemented without impediment and the business models operate successfully.
  • Trial infrastructure and urban systems interventions in UKCRIC’s laboratories – a complementary suite of facilities covering surface and subsurface infrastructure systems, structures and foundations, sensors, materials, water and wastewater systems.
  • Trial infrastructure and urban systems interventions in UKCRIC’s Urban Observatories – a complementary suite of six observatories in Newcastle, Sheffield, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and Cranfield.
  • Trial infrastructure and urban systems interventions in – Data and Analytics Facility for National Infrastructure (DAFNI), hosted by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), has world-leading capabilities for developing and running infrastructure and urban system models.
  • Influence policy by drawing on research findings to help shape local and national government policy and make the case for the intervention to policy-makers.
  • Influence practice by supporting urban professionals to make more informed decisions – translating research findings to practice.
  • Inform and engage the public about the issues, and how they might be addressed.

This guidance is underpinned by UKCRIC’s ambition to change the way in which infrastructure and cities research is approached in the UK and move from competition to collaboration. The guidance hints at this in its first statement of bringing all perspectives together at the very start of the process. UKCRIC recognises that the expertise required for an infrastructure or city system intervention – whether creating new infrastructure, implementing a new operational practice, developing a new policy or refining an existing system – usually lies in different institutions and organisations and across different disciplines and sectors. The only way to progress effectively, therefore, is to collaborate across these institutions, organisations, disciplines and sectors. While this evidently requires us to assemble appropriate multi-disciplinary teams, to collaborate effectively we need to know how to work across the domains and for this we need to establish transdisciplinary practices. This is another aspect of UKCRIC’s pioneering work, see Why Research Integration Matters.

For more information or to find out how UKCRIC could help your infrastructure challenge, please contact us

Image credit: Timothy Neesam via Flickr