Insight: Dealing with the Complexity of the Underworld, part 2

Understanding the value of the subsurface
Insight: Dealing with the Complexity of the Underworld, part 2
UKCRIC Director, Research Integration and UKCRIC Deputy Convenor (University of Birmingham)

2nd article in a special underground infrastructure series

UKCRIC and its system-of-systems approach

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In a slightly roundabout way, this leads to UKCRIC – the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities. Both the business case and the science case for UKCRIC were founded on the need for maintaining and upgrading our infrastructures and systems to sit alongside the need for innovation when creating new infrastructures and systems. UKCRIC is underpinned by investments in three stands of activity – its laboratories, its urban observatories and its modelling and simulation facility. The laboratories of most direct relevance to the Underworld are the National Buried Infrastructure Facility at Birmingham, the National Soil-Foundation-Structure Facility at Bristol and the National Infrastructure Laboratory at Southampton, although the sensing, materials, water engineering and green infrastructure laboratories naturally all provide important complementary capabilities.

UKCRIC’s approach to the wide range of challenges of engineering in the infrastructure and cities space is founded on an appreciation that what we are dealing with is inherently complex and needs a systems approach: it requires all involved to think and act systemically and to work seamlessly across silos wherever they exist (academic, professional, governance and so on). The UKCRIC partnership has come together specifically to tackle these challenges and has compiled a theory of change for infrastructure and cities to help guide this process (Rogers et al., 2023). Underpinned by a process of system mapping to make transparent the full reach of consequences of bringing about a change in the system-of-systems that make up our places, it starts by identifying all of those who either influence, or are influenced by, the proposed system change and establishing these stakeholders’ aspirations. Combining them into a design brief for the system change, the methodologies thereafter recommend processes of establishing both the baseline performance of the system of interest and the current context in which the system change is to operate. This information is then used in a process of rigorous problem diagnostics.

Only once these processes have been carried out is it then appropriate to apply engineering (ingenuity) to solve the problems and bring about beneficial change. This will lead to a number of alternative design options, all having alternative combinations of benefits associated with them. The system maps can be used to identify, for each of these design options in turn, where value is gained, and equally where value is lost, in all other infrastructure and urban systems with which the system of interest is dependent or interdependent. Summation of this value, positive and negative, de facto provides the basis for the alternative business models associated with the system change. The designs must be tested both in the current context, which is straightforward since we will understand both the context and existing system performance, and in the future. Moreover, UKCRIC offers a suite of laboratories, urban observatories and a modelling and simulation capability to trial the proposed system changes and hence de-risk their application if they were to be implemented today.

When considering the resilience and sustainability of the designs, we need to consider the efficacy of the proposed system change(s) in the future. For the types of design for which civil engineers are responsible it is the far future that matters, and the future context becomes progressively more uncertain the farther into the future we look. Therefore, it is essential to use scenario analysis alongside models that deliver predictions and projections (which are of the greatest benefit for the near future). The recommended approach in the UKCRIC Theory of Change is to use extreme-yet-plausible futures in which to trial the system changes, since these will illustrate both where, and why, a particular design might be vulnerable to inefficiency or ineffectiveness, and hence limit or compromise fully the intended beneficial outcomes, if the future context changes.

Synergistic and responsive governance

Once the likely immediate and future benefits, and any risks associated with their delivery, have been established, then the alternative business models can be finalised, the most appropriate design option chosen and the case for change made. However, woven into all of this work from the very early stages, and brought into sharp focus at the final stage, is the role of governance. There are both formal and informal systems of governance, and both exert a powerful control over the success or otherwise of a system change. The formal forms of governance include legislation, regulation, codes & standards, taxation and incentives – the formal leavers of government that are applied ‘top down’. The informal forms of governance include individual attitudes and behaviours, societal attitudes and behaviours, societal norms, (professional) practice norms and so on. These might be viewed as the ‘bottom up’ forms of governance. Consideration of governance is where both culture and politics comes into play, since those who govern are generally elected or appointed to serve on the behalf of individuals and society, and therefore the ‘bottom up’ views can strongly influence those responsible for shaping the ‘top down’ levers of government. These forms of governance need to align with the engineering designs if the full suite of intended outcomes is to be realised, i.e., if the systems are to function and be used as intended.

Once all of these processes have been completed, the traditional approach would be then either to implement and expect the users of the system to put into operation or comply with the system change, or to ‘sell’ it to the user community. However, by following the UKCRC Theory of Change’s processes the users will have been identified at the very start of the process, they will have been given a voice to articulate their aspirations, and these aspirations will have been taken into consideration, possibly by active participation (co-creation), in the design processes. This means that the process of ‘selling the system change’ becomes largely unnecessary and more of a process of explanation as to why the system change is the way it is and how it meets the combined aspirations. The final point to make in all this is that every stage of the Theory of Change process is iterative and, because we are dealing with a complex context and a complex set of systems, it is important to be flexible in the design and implementation of system changes so that we learn while we are advancing, and in turn advance in response to the learning.

Engineering beyond Net Zero

Now that the subject of contextual change, a set of major uncertainties that best all infrastructure and urban systems designs, has been broached it is worth quoting Macfarlane (2019) again: “We are presently living through the Anthropocene, an epoque of immense and often frightening change at a planetary scale, in which ‘crisis’ exists not as an ever-deferred future apocalypse but rather as an ongoing occurrence experienced most severely by the most vulnerable. Time is profoundly out of joint – and so is place. Things that should have stayed buried are rising up unbidden.” I find this useful because it deals in geological time and cuts through arguments about whether what we are experiencing is a natural perturbation of the weather and social systems or a profound human-induced phenomenon. One convincing argument when dealing with climate change is that directing our actions towards decarbonisation without adversely affecting their functional and societal outcomes, or even delivering a suite of additional benefits, negates the argument that a move towards Net Zero is simply a drain on resources. This is further proof of the need for understanding and making transparent all of the consequences of engineering system changes and creating innovative designs in the light of this information. It is here that the geotechnical engineer has an enormous amount to offer, and where geotechnical engineering researchers have a well-defined research brief, either as an addition to the work or as a central focus. There can be no excuses for overlooking the long-term consequences of our designs.

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The author gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council under grant numbers EP/F007426, EP/F065965 (Mapping The Underworld), EP/I016133, EP/I036877, EP/J017698 (Liveable Cities), EP/K012398, EP/K021699 (Assessing The Underworld), EP/N010523, EP/P002021, EP/P013635 (UKCRIC National Buried Infrastructure Facility), EP/R013535 (UKCRIC – PLEXUS), EP/R017727 (Coordination Node for UKCRIC) and EP/S016813, and the very many researchers and practitioners with whom I have collaborated on this journey of discovery.


GoFS (2023). Foresight Future of the Subsurface.  Government Office for Science, London, UK. See: (Accessed 15th September 2023)

Macfarlane R (2019). Underland. Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, UK. ISBN 978-0-141-03057-9

Price SR, Ford JR, Campbell SDG and Jefferson I (2016). Urban Futures: The Sustainable Management of the Ground Beneath Cities. In Eggers MJ, Griffiths JS, Parry S & Culshaw MG (eds) Developments in Engineering Geology. Geological Society, London. Engineering Geology Special Publication 27, 19–33.

Rogers CDF, Makana LO, Leach JM and the UKCRIC Community (2023). The Little Book of Theory of Change for Infrastructure and Cities. University of Birmingham, UK. ISBN 978-0-70442-981-9

Sadler JP, Grayson N, Hale JD, Locret-Collet MG, Hunt DVL, Bouch CJ and Rogers CDF (2018).  The Little Book of Ecosystem Services in the City.  ISBN: 978-0-70442-956-7