Insight: A Systems-of-Systems Approach to Underground Infrastructure

The Infrastructure that enables all aspects of life in modern societies and economies is a deeply interdependent system of systems
Insight: A Systems-of-Systems Approach to Underground Infrastructure
UKCRIC Senior Research Fellow (UCL)

1st article in a special underground infrastructure series


The infrastructure that enables all aspects of life in modern societies and economies is a deeply interdependent system of systems, components of which are located:

  • Terrestrially, overground, at the subsurface, and underground
  • Aquatically, below the sea/riverbed, on the sea/riverbed, on or immediately above, the sea/riverbed
  • Atmospherically, in the tropo, strato, meso, thermo and exo spheres

All of the above locations provide a unique set of context specific technical, scientific, economic, societal challenges for infrastructure provision. Nevertheless, interdependencies exists between infrastructure components.

Regardless of the sector that owns and operates them, and regardless of whether they are located above ground, in the subsurface, underground, the skies immediately above our heads or in orbit, all infrastructure assets and systems are part of deeply interdependent system of systems with a shared common purpose.

Underground infrastructure has unique challenges across all stages of the infrastructure asset and infrastructure system lifecycle, but tackling these challenges should remain mindful of the wider systemic context within which underground infrastructure is embedded and the interdependencies between underground, subsurface, and overground infrastructure.

A Systemic Context

All modern societies, economies and places in which we live are enabled by a deeply interdependent system of economic infrastructure sectors and associated governance structures (henceforth, infrastructure systems). More specifically, the flow of goods and services produced by infrastructure systems enable all other forms of economic and societal activity, create multiplier effects and ultimately enable the emergence of outcomes that simply would not occur in their absence.

Ensuring that the type of outcomes an infrastructure systems enables, and the qualities these outcomes possess, are closely aligned with long term societal priorities (i.e. are equitable, inclusive, fair, affordable, healthy, secure, resilient), is a profoundly significant challenge.

Attempting to do so in the context of the climate emergency , whilst simultaneously seeking to transform infrastructure systems from a passive driver of the climate emergency into a system that:

  • is able to mitigate the causes of the climate crisis by:
    • reducing its own GHG emissions to net zero (a net zero system)
    • reducing the GHG emissions from the activities, supply chains, households, communities, places, societies and economies it enables (a net zero enabling system),
  • is resilient to the disruptive impacts of global warming of between 1.5oC-4oC (a resilient system)
  • is capable of protecting the activities, supply chains, households, communities, places, societies and economies it enables from those same disruptive impacts (a resilience enhancing system) is significantly harder.

Particularly given that the climate emergency is a wicked problem - an unintended emergent property of modern life, neither wholly caused, nor wholly resolvable, by a single party acting in isolation. A wicked problem is neither a technical problem awaiting the right technical fix nor a political problem awaiting the right policy initiative. Rather, it is a type of problem in need of a mission-oriented approach focused on the transformation of the systems (including mindsets and governance structures) from which it has emerged.

It is, nevertheless, driven by the knowledge that infrastructure systems are societally significant, globally replicable leverage points that can either catalyse or impede the type of societal transformation needed to have a chance of successfully tackling the climate emergency, and that infrastructural inaction is a luxury we can no longer afford. These are the challenges on which the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities’ (UKCRIC’s) Scientific Missions are broadly focused and I believe they offer an invaluable systemic perspective.

UKCRIC Scientific Missions: A Brief Summary

UKCRIC’s scientific missions capture the collective belief of its members that Infrastructure systems can, and must be,

  • Mission 1: Systemic enablers of equitable, inclusive, fair, affordable societally beneficial outcomes.
  • Mission 2: Systemically resilient systems that enhance overall societal resilience.
  • Mission 3: Sustainable, net zero pollution systems that enable the emergence of sustainable, net zero pollution, societies.
  • Mission 4: Underpinned by fit-for-purpose governance +++ structures and business models purposefully aligned with Missions 1-3.

Mission 1 is focused on the purpose of infrastructure and the catalytic role it can play in supporting realisation of the type and quality of outcomes we expect infrastructure systems to enable. Missions 2 and 3 focus on two critical long-term qualities infrastructure systems must possess to support the long-term sustainable realisation of Mission 1. Mission 4 focuses on the governance, regulation and management structures required to enhance the feasibility of Missions 1-3 being realised.

UKCRIC Scientific Missions: Some Key Reflections

  1. Remove Infrastructural Barriers and Unlock Systemic Potential

The UKCRIC Scientific Missions aim to remove infrastructural barriers to progress and unlock the catalytic potential of infrastructure systems as leverage points by:

(I) establishing an enabling role for infrastructure systems at the heart of net zero, sustainability, resilience, levelling up strategies;

(II) integrating the qualities sustainable, net zero and resilient into the societal and economic outcomes infrastructure systems are expected to enable;

(III) ensuring all infrastructure governance +++ structures align with the type and quality of outcomes infrastructure systems are expected to enable (i.e. are fit for purpose).

  1. Catalyse Wider Collaborative Action, Don’t Provide a Magic Bullet

Whilst transforming infrastructure systems into net zero-enabling, sustainability-supporting, resilience-enhancing systems is a pre-requisite for a successful transformative response to the climate emergency, it is not a guarantor of success.

It must be supported by a wider collaborative portfolio of systemically targeted actions, performed by a diverse array of mission actors, utilising a range of different types of action, supported by a government committed to removing all impediments to action, and implemented (and funded) by a diverse network of communities of interest/mission actors/stakeholders.

For example, a society cannot be resilient if the infrastructure system upon which it depends is not resilient, but resilient infrastructure systems do not guarantee a resilient society. Likewise, a society cannot achieve net zero unless the infrastructure system upon which it depends aspires to achieve net zero, but net zero infrastructure systems do not guarantee a net zero society.

Therefore, whilst resilient, net zero, infrastructure systems do not guarantee a resilient, net zero, society they can have a significant influence on the feasibility of a society achieving resilience and net zero targets.

To put it another way, if infrastructure system priorities are aligned with societal priorities, a successful response is possible. If they not, a successful response becomes highly improbable.

  1. Infrastructure Governance Must be Fit for Purpose

The type and quality of societal, environmental and economic outcomes enabled by current infrastructure systems are a legacy of design and procurement decisions and governance structures aligned with past societal, environmental and economic priorities.

The climate emergency and other global trends have begun to shift perceptions of societal, environmental and economic priorities. This is a process that will no doubt accelerate in the future. However, whilst net zero targets are an encouraging sign that a new mindset is slowly beginning to emerge, systemic transformation of infrastructure systems requires a shove not a timid nudge.

The way infrastructure systems are perceived, designed, procured, governed, regulated, financed, and owned and the objectives used to inform infrastructure policy priorities, performance metrics needs assessments, and decision-making processes have not evolved at the same pace and are in urgent need of review. The result is a misalignment between legacy governance structures and current climate crisis necessities, which impedes infrastructural action to address societal priorities.

If infrastructure systems are to make possible the type of society, the quality of life outcomes, and economic prosperity expected by the citizens they serve and the places they enable, fit-for-purpose governance structures closely aligned with new societal priorities will be essential.

Final thought

Systemic transformation will follow, albeit slowly, given the long asset life of incumbent infrastructure assets. To remove infrastructural impediments and avoid undermining progress, misalignment between priorities must be sought out and addressed. Misalignment, if allowed to persist, will lead to infrastructure systems that deliver outcomes that are inconsistent with, and potentially detrimental to, the realisation of societal priorities.