Infrastructure fit for now and the future

Published: 5 Mar 2019

By: David Fisk - Commissioner


Infrastructure is integral to daily life. Whether it’s the superfast mobile data services keeping people and firms connected, the trains and roads transferring commuters to work every day, or the energy networks that keep us warm and well-lit, we all expect infrastructure to be there for us, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But what happens when that reliability and continuity is challenged and a major infrastructure system fails? What can UK do to ensure that the knock-on effects are limited?

Our country – and the infrastructure on which UK relies – is facing new and growing challenges, from the impacts of climate change and people’s behaviours to the rapid adoption of innovative digital technologies changing the way these complex systems are managed. Consequences of failure are intensified by the increased interdependence of infrastructure systems. Such changes bring with them new long-term risks: more frequent flooding, violent storms and drought, as well as increasing the impacts of accidents and cyber threats that have the capacity to seriously disrupt our economy and quality of life.

It’s important that we know what these new risks are, and plan appropriately to avoid them in the first instance – and, where necessary, ensure infrastructure can bounce back effectively.

This is why the Chancellor asked us to develop a framework to assess how resilient UK infrastructure is. Our overall well-being and prosperity as a country depends on making sure the UK’s economic infrastructure is capable of withstanding, recovering from and adapting to large shocks to the system as well as threats that develop over time.

In response, we at the Commission have been busy collating evidence on the current approaches to resilience, with help from a range of researchers, policymakers and practitioners. This initial work has come up with some fascinating approaches to assessing, improving and measuring the resilience of infrastructure, in both the literature and in practice. Our research has also identified one immediate challenge: resilience is a very broad and complex landscape. So, we need to do more to bring the different pieces of work together and create a clear ‘big picture’ of resilience.

That’s why the Commission is also talking with a wide range of stakeholders to ensure that the views of communities, businesses and customers are taken into account in its approach.

At our first event in January, we convened people from a wide range of sectors to help provide more focus on what our study needs to address. We were encouraged by the interest shown at the event, at which many people ended up having to stand! The event aimed to provoke conversations within and between the sectors, share best practice, and identify common challenges. The outputs from that event have helped us pinpoint some of the tough challenges associated with increasingly complex and interdependent infrastructure systems our study has to address.

It was a positive start. But as a Commission, we’re clear we need to hear from a wide range of stakeholders, experts and practitioners on the priorities for tackling resilience, to ensure our final study is rigorous, far reaching and, ultimately, encourages change.

This is why we have today published an open consultation to give people and organisations an opportunity to offer their views – and, crucially, their evidence – on the resilience issues facing the UK’s infrastructure. A crucial question we’re asking is: What should be the priorities for a resilience framework now and in the future ?

The Commission will use responses to this consultation to ensure that the framework within which we develop our recommendations on infrastructure resilience is comprehensive, and fully considers the links and interdependencies between different systems. Doing so will give us a firm basis on which we can develop clear, evidence-based policy and investment recommendations.

It’s important, too, that we consult and engage beyond those directly involved in building or designing the country’s infrastructure: families and business are, after all, hardest hit when infrastructure systems fail, and the first to ask difficult questions. So, we’re scoping new social research with field work expected later in the year to learn about people’s expectations of the infrastructure they use, and how these expectations might change in the face of new technologies and threats.

When water pipes burst, the electricity goes out, or flood defences are breached, the public naturally asks ‘Why? and ‘What could have been done better?’ There is an expectation of resilience and continuity for the services which make daily life possible. Our study will ask how the UK can better meet that expectation.

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