Tuesday, 23rd May 2017
  • Chris Fry (Managing Director)

Justifying investment in infrastructure resilience – three things to do now

In the context of increasing vulnerability to extreme weather and natural hazards, resilience is becoming a more prominent consideration in protecting the value of infrastructure assets. Temple’s Managing Director Chris Fry recently presented at the final event in the popular infrastructure resilience series run by the Construction Industry Research and Information Association (CIRIA).  A CIRIA publication, drawing together a wide range of insights from the series, will be released later in the year.  In the meantime, here are some of the ideas from Chris on making the business case for infrastructure resilience.

The title of my talk was “why did the chicken even have to cross the road? – identifying the benefits of integrated infrastructure”.  But I also recognise that joined up thinking, and doing, is not easy to achieve.  Firstly “integrated infrastructure” probably means many different things to different people.  Here I am particularly talking about taking an integrated approach over time (e.g. through the asset life cycle). And also how infrastructure works in specific places to achieve better outcomes (e.g. interconnected infrastructure and infrastructure-enabled regeneration).

Secondly there is real inertia in the way that infrastructure is planned and decided.  For example the economic appraisal of projects seriously marginalises the future benefits of resilience features due to economic discount rates (e.g. £1,000 of flood protection benefit is written down to just £45 once the infrastructure is 125 years into its life).  And a related issue is that the benefits of greater resilience tend to be spread far and wide (i.e. beyond immediate asset owners/users) requiring a good dose of systems-level thinking.

Justifying investment in infrastructure resilience – three things to do now

This leads me to a rather gloomy prediction and call for change: we need to reframe the way that we think about infrastructure and the current pace of change is too slow.  This will result in many missed opportunities despite the significant investment in UK infrastructure in the decades to come.  So it is time to reboot.       

Clearly it may be impractical to change everything all at once to overcome the inertia.  So here are three priorities for the infrastructure industry to work on right now:

1. Turning infrastructure outside in. The golden rule here is that good infrastructure is the means and not an end in itself.  To leverage the greatest productivity and value for the capital investment, infrastructure should be designed and operated in a way that puts customers/users and local communities/regeneration centre stage.  And there is no place for an isolated approach within the energy, water, transport infrastructure silos – the best ideas should be shared, and co-benefits captured.

2. Integrated appraisal (& don’t forget evaluation). The Jubilee Line Extension to Docklands famously was approved for construction with a negative benefit to cost ratio (0.95), that was almost doubled five years later when its contribution to UK GDP was considered more fully.  The need to update the way that infrastructure investments are appraised and evaluated to consider wider economic and environmental effects and interdependencies is well recognised, most recently by Transport for the North and the National Infrastructure Commission.  There are also new tools and approaches that should help to shed new light on wider resilience benefits such as the advent of natural capital and the inclusion of climate change vulnerability in the updated Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations. Robust metrics for ongoing evaluation and effective transfer of lessons to future projects are also of critical importance to accelerate learning in infrastructure investment.

3. Harnessing new technologies. The digital revolution in infrastructure is underway (e.g. with Building Information Modelling and augmented reality) but there are many more as yet unexploited technologies for planning and managing infrastructure assets better.  Just one area is the greater use of smart sensor technologies so that elements of the infrastructure system can talk to each other to guide operational or maintenance decisions.  Imagine the power of smart Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS) as part of the Internet of Resilient Things…