How do we improve infrastructure resilience?

How do we improve infrastructure resilience?
UKCRIC Ambassador at Large (ad hominem) (UCL)
09 December 2020

Professor Brian Collins, CB, FREng, shares his view following a joint Academy and National Infrastructure Commission roundtable

The recent joint Royal Academy of Engineering and National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) roundtable event was convened to discuss the resilience of national economic infrastructure. This infrastructure covers, for example, power, water, transport and digital communications, and the roundtable opened the doors to a much wider range of conversations about infrastructure resilience than had previously occurred. As Chairman what I found really stimulating was the openness of debate about not only engineering issues but those to do with economics, society at large, the environment and indeed the well-being of individuals.

The recommendations produced by the NIC to set clear resilience standards, carry out regular stress testing, and create long-term strategies, are interdependent. They all contain the word “regulation”. Regulators in the infrastructure services industry determine, as it were, the rules of the game that suppliers and consumers, whether they be private citizens or industry, must comply with. Regulators are the creature of Parliament, not the administration of the day, and hence have obligations and duties that are framed in the long-term. This was recognised in the report that I co-authored in 2009 for the Prime Minister’s Council of Science and Technology (CST) from which the UK Regulators Network (UKRN) was created. The latest workplan of UKRN contains evidence of increased collaboration between regulators but little evidence of collaboration towards improving resilience. This is an area I think the Academy can follow up on with UKRN. 

The roundtable discussions identified five useful themes.

  1. Increasing complexity

The complexity of infrastructure’s system of systems must now be faced up to because failure in any one sector or system has cascade effects into others with possible amplification effects. The NIC report contains case studies that illustrate the multiple dimensions in which this complexity occurs. And yet despite this the latest government infrastructure strategy is still largely sectoral and does not address the ownership or governance of the complexity of infrastructure services and systems. This issue needs to be addressed.

  1. Net zero and resilience

While lip service is paid to the commonality between these two agendas, the dilemma of net zero is that it is an emerging scene of activity with national and international consequences that affect trade and that have features within it that are outside the control of the United Kingdom.

Similar arguments apply to the resilience of infrastructure services where there is an international element involved, such as importing energy, international supply chains of networks, data centres that are situated outside UK territory and collaboration on space assets that provide early warning of extreme weather events. Joined up governance of these two agenda would be a sensible thing to do. This should be done in such a way that activities and investments are seen from a holistic point of view, opening up conversations around how any one investment and its impact will likely interact with other areas of investment happening now or in the future.

  1. Whole-system approach

The idea that resilience can be dealt with within a sector or within a discipline is now passé. It is quite clear from the case studies published by the NIC that events and the consequences of events are played out in ways that are not predictable from past experience in any detail, and yet have features and principles that can be anticipated and can be prepared for.

The creation of the National Preparedness Commission by Lord Toby Harris, of which I have the privilege of being part, is an initiative that is aimed at achieving a whole system approach to resilience and preparedness. Although in its formation stage, it could significantly impact top-level thinking on what packages of policies at the national and international and indeed regional and community level might make a difference.

  1. Valuing resilience

Lack of resilience now is seen as a risk that must be insured against. It is difficult to fund as an investment prior to any incident occurring. However, tests that show if a system is resilient could help. This links directly with the NIC recommendation on regular stress testing.  If regular stress testing can be made a regulatory requirement, then the value of stress testing will become as obvious as insurance is now. This is essentially what has happened in part of the financial services industry post 2007. Stress testing to ensure an appropriate level of resilience in infrastructure services will demand research, modelling and analysis. It will require different ways of thinking about valuing investments and involve professional education of all stakeholders so that they see infrastructure services through a different set of lenses, such as environmental and social, from those used now, which are mainly financial.

  1. Better communication

Underpinning all of the themes above is better and deeper collaboration prior to investment and during operation, where it is appropriate to do so. Communicating well relies on access to good data and good information; the collection of data at an appropriate level of granularity is essential. Regulation which determines that this data is shared at an appropriate time in order to expedite better resilience capability is important. Services and systems modelling that is carried out in the UKCRIC universities together with the exploitation of data and modelling through activities such as those of Digital Built Britain and the Alan Turing Institute is moving in the right direction to achieve some of these objectives. It will still need more investment and pan research council and professional institute oversight in order to achieve the scale of impact that is needed from better communications.

The synthesis of all these activities has moved forward the discourse on this topic considerably. While this roundtable brought experts together to discuss a range of topics, my analysis of what has happened so far is that turning these recommendations into actions will take political will and resource that is difficult due to Covid-19. However, it should be possible to start the conversation now with follow up investment in these areas over the next 1-2 years. Maintaining an open and transparent dialogue, sharing policies and demonstrating leadership across the research councils, professional institutions, government departments and city leadership will provide a common platform to convene and take action, to enable more resilient infrastructure systems and services to be part of our future.

Read the report on the infrastructure resilience roundtable here.

This article was first published by the Royal Academy of Engineering on their blog; you can read the original article here.

Image credit: Shane Rounce via Unsplash