Professor Chris Rogers and PhD student Elisabeth Shrimpton from the School of Engineering at the University of Birmingham presented to COP26 delegates as part of the UKCRIC – Infrastructure Operators Adaptation Forum – University of Birmingham event at the COP26 Resilience Hub.
To date, civil engineers have facilitated the effective functioning of cities by helping conceive, design and implement infrastructure systems to enable the movement of people, resources, goods and ideas.
Looking to the future and its ever-changing context, civil engineers have the potential to facilitate a smooth transition from existing systems to ones which are far more sustainable and resilient – adaptable to a changing climate and more extreme weather patterns.
In a seminar at COP26, Prof Chris Rogers and his PhD student Elisabeth Shrimpton set out a vision for how engineers can positively influence infrastructure and urban systems’ design, construction, operational practices and governance, and the policy process that surrounds it.
Research collaborations such as those fostered by UKCRIC have the ability to bring together a range of stakeholders to scope problems and guide conversations towards solutions, led by the evidence.
One of their primary tasks is to establish the baseline performance of existing infrastructure and urban systems so that we can work out how to make improvements, and track and monitor the impact of interventions. In relation to engineering for cities, it will be important for researchers to develop a suite of alternative business models alongside their technical solutions to address problems, with clearly identified beneficial outcomes and potential adverse consequences, both to demonstrate the full range of value that well-designed system interventions can bring and to de-risk decision-making.
It is equally important to specify what changes will be required in terms of governance and expectations. Academia needs to draw a line from research to practice, making it as easy as possible for policy-makers and industry to implement solutions through, for example, the provision of tools and case studies. There is also a need to engage the public, to increase awareness of the issues from a scientific perspective and to advocate for preferred solutions.
Additionally, future infrastructure policy must consider the needs of the environment as a ‘non-verbal stakeholder’.
Decisions about infrastructure interventions require ‘just governance’, because they are effectively decisions about the distribution of societal resources. In urban environments, we are arguably more remote and detached from the natural world. How do we engineer and govern to appreciate and adapt to the environment’s needs as well as our own? Furthermore, how high up the ladder of intrusiveness do we go in deciding which policy tools to employ (legislation, versus incentives and education?), and how do we make sure that they are adaptable and resilient to changing circumstances?
During the presentation, Elisabeth argued for openness about what we prioritise and how we allocate resources in order to give non-human life a voice at the table. She cited the Pipebots research programme as an example of innovation with unrealised potential to tackle environmental goals. Designed to live underground in water and wastewater pipes, these microrobots will have the ability to assess pipeline condition, detect leaks and blockages, identify points of incipient failure, and eventually become part of the ‘trenchless’ processes to fix them without disturbing life on the surface. However, there would need to be a radical change in asset management practices from what exists now, and regulations would need to be adapted to allow for their use.
Alongside a collective will to set up systems which are resilient and sustainable for the sector, policy now needs to consider and facilitate the participation of all stakeholders in the system, including voices that represent the environment.