New book sets a blueprint for assessing infrastructure needs

A team of academics has published the results of five years work, establishing principles for how long term infrastructure needs should be assessed with a comprehensive first stab at the future options. The work's lead author, Professor Jim Hall, writes.

A new book has set out a blueprint for how to carry out the national infrastructure assessment. With the National Infrastructure Commissions now grappling with its commitment to produce a first assessment during this Parliament, UK academics have set out the principles for how it could be carried out and have completed a comprehensive first assessment of the future options for national infrastructure systems in Great Britain. 

The book “The future of national infrastructure: a system-of-systems approach” is the product of five years of research by academics in the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Southampton, Newcastle, Leeds, Cardiff and Sussex, who together form the UK Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC). The £4.7million research programme was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and involved 43 partner organisations in industry, government and the professional institutions. 

Lord Adonis, Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, when presented with a copy remarked “So I presume this is going to give me all the answers!”

The National Infrastructure Commission faces three main challenges: first the Commission has to set out a clear vision and justify a sequence of investments and policies that will meet the nation’s infrastructure needs in future; second it has to make the economic case for infrastructure investment and work out where the money is going to come from; and third the Commission can’t ignore the politics of infrastructure. Though our book includes chapters on the economics and governance of infrastructure, our main focus is upon the first challenge – how to analyse and plan increasingly complex interdependent infrastructure systems in an uncertain future.”

The ITRC’s research has taken a ‘system-of-systems’ approach, digging into the future challenges and options for energy, transport, digital communications, water, sewage, waste water and solid waste, but for the first time putting them on a level playing field using a consistent set of demographic, economic and modelling assumptions. The ITRC’s work on the vulnerability of infrastructure to flood risk has proved to be very timely. Complex interdependencies between infrastructure networks have been simulated using the ITRC’s NISMOD modelling system, which is built on top of Britain’s first national infrastructure database, NISMOD-DB. 

Publishing the Future of National Infrastructure is a milestone in our research programme, but our knowledge, datasets and modelling system have already moved on since we finished writing the book last year. Recently we have learnt a great deal from working with Infrastructure UK using NISMOD to analyse the projects in the National Infrastructure Plan.

The ITRC team are now providing the analytical fire-power for the National Needs Assessment being led by Sir John Armitt. They have been awarded another £5.3million grant from EPSRC to take the ITRC in new directions over the next five years, including overseas where demand for NISMOD’s capabilities is high.