Insight: Developing a prospectus for infrastructure and cities research for a COVID-19 world

Outcomes of our webinar held on 21 May
Insight: Developing a prospectus for infrastructure and cities research for a COVID-19 world
UKCRIC Convenor (University of Southampton)

It is impossible to know how the COVID-19 pandemic will evolve. As Yogi Berra (amongst others) famously said, “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”. However, we can be fairly confident that the disease will follow a path somewhere between the extremes of:

  • diminishing to a level of risk that is acceptable within society, through a combination of some or all of the development of a vaccine, natural immunity and mutation, and
  • remaining as a threat requiring proactive steps against infection and spread; such as maintaining minimum physical distances, routine use of personal protective equipment, and therapeutics to alleviate symptoms.

Even the best case outcome brings certain challenges. How do we retain the benefits we have seen emerge during lockdown, such as reduced car use, reduced reliance on burning coal, and exercise becoming part of people’s daily routines? How do we build resilience against a future pandemic into the way we live, including travel, social interactions, housing density and the provision of safe amenity space for all?

In the worst case outcome, these questions become more urgent and finding solutions becomes more challenging.

On 21 May 2020, we held an online seminar to start development of a UKCRIC prospectus for infrastructure and cities research for a world living with the presence – or at least the memory – of COVID-19, as a basis for collaborative research funding proposals.

We focused on

Notes from each of the sessions, with answers to the three questions below in each case, may be accessed by clicking on the links.

The event started with a plenary session in which we heard some initial thoughts on these topics, together with some thoughts on resilience and emerging data from the UKCRIC Urban Observatories.

We will then split into five discussion sessions, in which we addressed the questions:

  1. What are the desired characteristics of a COVID-19 world?
  2. What investments and changes are needed, and over what timescales?
  3. What are the underpinning research needs?

Please note that, for the purpose of this write-up, the assertions put forward during the workshop have not been fully fact-checked.


Desired characteristics of a COVID-19 world

Construction as an industry must have a deeper understanding of changed demand in a COVID-19 UK and planet, and a better understanding of supply chain links alongside construction working systems and practices appropriate for the new expectations of wellbeing. Deep reflection on the insights into city and infrastructure system resilience provided by this crisis is needed, even if a vaccine is eventually found for this strain. And, we must avoid being deflected from the existential threat of climate change by this pandemic. COVID-19 has been a cataclysmic shock, but climate change remains the bigger risk to civilization.

What investments and changes are needed?

A focus on wellbeing in construction working practices is vital. Planning for social distancing – a shift from the dominant focus on Occupational Health and Safety – may lead sites to be open for longer, with shift work patterns to allow fewer people on site at a time. There must also be a wider array of travel options for workers to get to site, to make sure they don’t cause negative impacts on health or overload newly adapted transport systems.

Revitalising UK production and supply chains would reduce reliance on long distance transport. Security of supply issues caused by COVID-19 have revealed the risks of becoming reliant on too few sources, especially if these are not within the UK. This may lead to a reconsideration of what materials and products are used and where and how they are manufactured. Construction may be used as an economic stimulus. However, with construction infrastructure markers such as airports, entertainment and retail likely to contract, we must plan to meet the Global Goals as a first priority, with post-COVID simply being a new constraint on that.

It’s also worth considering that construction is not just the building itself – the design process is also important and there are lots of opportunities in Certified Professional Development and in learning new software to maintain and build on good habits and practices.

If we are entering a period of depression for construction and access to capital is constrained – what does a more integrated approach look like?

What are the underpinning research needs?

We need research to better understand the new shape of demand for construction, to answer questions like: are High Street retail and department stores now history? Are offices now over-provided? Do we need more warehousing? Do schools need to be expanded to allow more space? Will homeworking and home teaching mitigate the demand? It’s too early to forecast, but there is a need to see what future demand profiles look like. The National Infrastructure Commission has a role to play with its pipeline concept to smooth over the boom/bust cycle. Will this incentivize more collaborative contracting arrangements? This may be one approach to reduce the financial vulnerability of contractors.

More collaborative research between engineers and business schools to research future construction demand and consider responsive business and commercial models would be useful. This demand may also include repurposing of buildings into new uses, and finding better tools and methods for calculating the system-based whole life carbon cost of any constructed asset.

It would also be interesting to explore new ways of constructing with wellbeing, considering safety in the wider sense. Robotics and AI could also play a part in transforming construction techniques and improve safety and wellbeing.

A systems approach to construction and its dependencies – travel to work, materials, robotics, offsite construction and how the system can be reconfigured – would make a valuable research project. As would the viability of new production techniques allowing a regeneration of UK manufacturing for security of supply and resilience.

Net Zero explorations could include research into new materials that combine structural elements with carbon sequestration, challenging the definition of project benefits, and waste minimization on sites through circular economy principles.


Desired characteristics of a COVID-19 world

When it comes to considering energy in a COVID-19 world, energy systems should be adaptable, resilient and aligned to Net Zero targets. We can’t carry on with business as usual – COVID-19 is an opportunity to redesign systems to adapt to new work-life patterns and energy use.

What investments and changes are needed?

Most cities have already declared a climate emergency, but city plans need to be reactivated post-COVID-19 to meet Net Zero targets and address climate change impacts. Investment streams need to be identified, though there is a significant threat to these due to the economic shock caused by the pandemic. Some cities, for example the Solent region, have coordinated to combat economic downturn and investigate future energy systems and investment. Evidence to support this could be provided by modelling and monitoring through coordinated sensing networks.

Scenario planning would be useful. Operators model energy systems to achieve current business case investment plans, but are not modelling multiple impacts and hazards. Integrated business and investment would create the right institutional infrastructure to enable investment in cities to support change and resilient systems. Place-based approaches for energy may be needed to encourage investment and evidence is needed to enable planning.

In addition, paired policy agendas (e.g. health and energy) within and between cities could unlock shared leverage points. A good example of this is the Bristol One City plan, linking health, energy, and climate change.

Lean and just-in-time approaches must be avoided, along with fiscal constraints, local optimisation at the wrong system scale or with narrow strategic objectives and misalignment with energy system objectives.

What are the underpinning research needs?

A key question that emerged is: how do we model the resilience of energy systems to multiple hazards which now include COVID-19? This would include considering multi-hazards, escalating failures and strategic challenges for the energy system.

It would be interesting to explore the possible impacts of COVID-19 on future patterns of use and demand for energy products and services, as well as infrastructure products and services more broadly. And there will be other drivers of changes in use; e.g. electrification of domestic heating impacts on bulk supply and local distribution networks. Changes to work/life patterns post COVID could also affect this.

System performance should be considered holistically. There is a need to understand interdependencies, relative criticalities, impacts of different failures and stress test scenarios. Using system-of-systems approaches, digital twins or federated systems linked to sensor networks through the Urban Observatories may address these issues. Identifying system dynamics would also be useful (including condition, state, normal operations, enabling interdependencies, latent vulnerabilities). There are many levels of interdependencies within the energy system, including between the energy system and other economic infrastructure networks, as well as the dynamic external context.

Finally, energy in cities is a key consideration. How are city spaces used in relation to health and energy, and underpinned by infrastructure? Will people relocate away from cities because of COVID-19 and what impact will that have on energy systems?

Urban Density

Desired characteristics of a COVID-19 world

When it comes to urban density in a COVID-19 world, there must be the ability to physically distance or isolate, access clean air and public spaces, ensure social equity and promote mental well-being. High density overcrowding of people – and vitally, reinforced social and environmental injustice – must be avoided.

What investments and changes are needed?
Density must be controlled in the new normal. Planning processes, practices, and how we understand, define, and control density need sharpening up, as highly populated areas are no longer viable.

In the short-term, new infrastructure investments in cities will be a low priority. It may be that we need to refurbish or repurpose in the cheapest possible way for maximum benefit rather than focusing on large-scale investments. We will need to figure out how to make buildings adaptable. This will also influence any new build. Adaptability will come to the fore as a result. For example, the Nightingale hospitals – how do you repurpose a building in a very short time frame?

Does the COVID-19 situation force us to re-evaluate what we actually need, as opposed to what we desire? Urban design based around provision of what people need, and are able to access by foot or cycle, could be the future of urban spaces.

What are the underpinning research needs?

How to design urban spaces to promote health and well-being. 60% of deaths and disabilities is due to their environment and social factors, not health care or genetics. Health and social cohesion need to be brought into planning at the neighbourhood level.

Designing 15-minute/30-minute city/town. The idea of the 15-minute city/30-minute city is where you can access what you need within 15-/30- minutes of walking or cycling, whether that’s work, health care or amenities. We can use the UKCRIC laboratories, Urban Observatories and ‘cities’ methodologies to re-imagine and re-design those places, including underground (the sometimes- overlooked shared spaces in cities).

Developing and using new business models to support adaptations that provide healthy 15-minute spaces for all. For example, should council taxes should be higher for those living close to green spaces in order to pay for maintenance, recognising the value link? What would this mean for lower-income households? If retail is declining, how do we raise revenue to repurpose the space?


Water, waste and resources

Desired characteristics of a COVID-19 world

It is important to see COVID-19 in the context of larger scale environmental and social challenges, including the climate crisis and resource constraints. It is essential that in considering the governance of water, waste and resources, we get better at spotting negative trends earlier, and at responding to them, particularly those that are slow and long term. It is important to be able to govern transitions, and creating trust in expertise, systems, mechanisms and governance.

What investments and changes are needed?

Being more precautionary would be beneficial in avoiding, by design, plausible unintended consequences. Systems engineering preparedness and planning for resilience into new systems of systems is crucial – not just planning for the next crisis, but really looking ahead to consider all possible future scenarios. Investing in multidisciplinary/cross-sectoral research in this area would be beneficial.

What are the underpinning research needs?

Looking into ways to connect different issues, e.g., holistic work to understand the impacts of shocks on particular sectors such as water and waste flows for monitoring public health and populations.

Understanding the material aspects of global resource flows – a sense of how materials ultimately become ‘things’ – and the vulnerabilities and bottlenecks in these systems.

Communicating research outcomes with decision-makers and the public better than we do now, as well as effective framing – how we tell stories and share experiences from around the world to engage and inform people.

Transport and mobility

Desired characteristics of a COVID-19 world

The desired characteristics of transport in a COVID-19 world are active transport, and public transport that is not only safe, but is perceived to be safe. A return to car use must be avoided.

What investments and changes are needed?

Highway engineering is currently biased towards cars. It needs to reconfigure so that considering all users becomes the norm, and before car use increases because of a reluctance to use public transport. Many local authorities are now planning for increased active transport with some already having implemented temporary cycle lanes. Education is vital to promote awareness of what alternative transport facilities exist and to encourage their use. Re-introducing the fuel duty escalator might help to counteract low petrol/diesel prices.

Public transport not only needs to be safe, but needs to feel safe. Air conditioning systems have the potential to circulate viruses around a vehicle. Could train carriages be designed for a COVID-19 world? Old “slam door” trains had multiple entrances and opening windows. Perhaps carriages (and buses) could be partitioned internally? Spreading peak travel will make a big difference – peak bus occupancy is 90 people, but the average over the day is only 14 people. This would need cooperation from wider users and employers to be effective.

What are the underpinning research needs?

An important question to ask here is: How can we design public transport which is safe to use (and financially viable) in a COVID-19 world?

There needs to be a better understanding of ways to encourage the use of active transport modes, and discourage the use of cars. Exploring the reconfiguring of highways for non-car users; better cycle way and walkway designs (rebooting highway engineering) would be helpful. What are the priorities when it comes to reconfiguring road space, and how do you get people to accept change? Understanding air quality of confined travel spaces, such as fluid dynamics research for air conditioning/ventilation systems on public transport and inside the cabin of a private car, would be useful.

Modelling to make best use of existing infrastructure capacity and timetabling on buses and trains, especially for people joining at intermediate stops if buses or trains are already full. Exploring transport alternatives by understanding the role, benefits and potential of micromobility. E-bikes and scooters are often considered a nuisance in urban spaces, and they are neither cars nor bikes, but perhaps their role could be reconsidered in planning for a COVID-19 world.

Finally, understanding how much of the short-term growth in home working is likely to persist into the long term, and what the implications are for transport.

Next steps

Over the coming weeks, UKCRIC will:

  1. Engage with the sectors identified as part of this workshop.
  2. Engage with other organisations currently going through similar processes in the infrastructure, built environment and cities/towns fields, with the aim of producing a unified “blueprint of blueprints” that could serve as a route map across society in the upcoming months and years
  3. Develop mechanisms and activities that encourage members of UKCRIC to generate proposals for, and offers to coordinate, research programmes to address the issues identified.

If you would like to get involved, please email us.

Image credit: Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash