Infrastructure Commission: what are the opportunities and how should it work?

The announcement by George Osborne that Lord Adonis is to lead an Infrastructure Commission similar (but not identical to) that proposed by Sir John Armitt, is undoubtedly a very positive development for infrastructure in the UK and consequently for all of the elements of the economy that infrastructure enables either directly or indirectly (i.e. the whole economy), says Dr Tom Dolan.

Dr Tom Dolan

The Infrastructure Commission creates a set of unique opportunities, which if embraced, will facilitate creation of a UK economy that as a whole is resilient to, and able to adapt in the face of, future global challenges. These are, the opportunity:

  • to address the absence of truly strategic thinking in UK infrastructure decision making,
  • to challenge the prevailing view of infrastructure as a series of sectors,
  • to raise the profile of how significant infrastructure is in enabling our daily lives,
  • to facilitate more effective delivery and operation of infrastructure,
  • to create awareness of the pressing need for our infrastructure systems to be more resilient.

With the above in mind, and building on comments by Sir John Armitt and Paul Jowitt in previous Infrastructure Intelligence articles, this article outlines a number of principles that we need the Infrastructure Commission and any infrastructure-needs assessment to embody if the value of the opportunity created by the Infrastructure Commission is to be fully realised. These principles must also be embraced by both industry and the infrastructure research community to support the Infrastructure Commission in its work.

Inspirational – Raise awareness of the importance of infrastructure

All economic and societal activity is to some extent enabled by infrastructure, and the form our society takes is enabled by the infrastructure we choose to provide. Therefore, it is striking that whilst everybody has a view about how society should function, few have a view about the infrastructure we as a country should demand and for the most part the general public seem to only notice the importance of infrastructure to their quality of life, when it fails to provide the quality of service to which we have all become accustomed/dependent upon.

The Infrastructure Commission has the opportunity to engage more broadly and raise the profile of infrastructure in order to emphasise the scale of the society wide value that infrastructure provision enables.

Systemic – Encourage broad cross sectoral thinking on infrastructure

Resilience is a system level property, best achieved by understanding the characteristics of the system not just the properties of component parts or sectors that comprise the system. Because we increasingly require infrastructure:

  • to be resilient to ever increasing interdependence between infrastructure sectors,
  • to be resilient to ‘extreme’ weather patterns,
  • to be resilient to the longer term impacts of climate change,
  • to reduce its collective CO2(eq) footprint to support achievement of CO2 reduction targets by 2050,

it follows, that the identification and resolution of infrastructure need at a sectoral level is no longer sufficient.

The Infrastructure Commission has the opportunity to promote a systemic approach to infrastructure and infrastructure need assessment. More broadly the Infrastructure Commission, through adoption of a systemic perspective, has the opportunity to create vital discourse on the role we expect infrastructure to play in creating a society resilient to the above challenges. 

Purposeful – Identify the societal level outcomes we want infrastructure to enable

The apparent absence of high level cross sectoral discourse, policy, vision or strategic thinking on the purpose of infrastructure and the types of societal outcome we collectively want to enable through infrastructure provision is a significant problem for infrastructure planning.

The Infrastructure Commission has the opportunity to address this gap by initiating society wide discussion with the objective of identifying a set of cross sectoral outcomes that infrastructure should aspire to enable in the future.

This process of discourse will raise the profile of how important infrastructure is and generate aspirational outcomes against which future infrastructure needs can be identified. To ensure that the aspirational outcomes identified remain ‘fit for purpose’ in the face of continually changing contexts, the process of identifying outcomes should be repeated on a regular basis.

Future facing – Be aware that infrastructure provision is subject to changing contexts

Linking infrastructure planning to the type of outcomes we want to enable will make identifying infrastructure need an inherently forward looking process.

The Infrastructure Commission has the opportunity to supplement this forward facing perspective by maintaining and regularly updating a broad qualitative awareness of the shape of future trends and the possible impact of these on infrastructure. Such trends include, but are not limited to, the expected impacts of climate change on weather patterns and sea level, changing demographic structures in society and global migration patterns, the potential for ICT to continue changing patterns of infrastructure demand.

Methodologically transparent – Avoid unstated assumptions, make reasoning explicit

The conclusions the Infrastructure Commission reaches, when assessing infrastructure needs will have a profound impact on infrastructure provision well into the future. The Infrastructure Commission have the opportunity to further strengthen the credibility of the needs they identify by employing a pre-agreed, evidence-based, peer-reviewed, transparent needs assessment methodology in a way that is open to public scrutiny. Therefore, enabling the rationale for all decisions made during the needs assessment process to be clearly understood and the credibility of needs assessment findings to be accepted as robust.

Identify ‘solution-neutral’ needs – Start from absolute basics

Infrastructure needs identified through any needs assessment must not be framed in terms of possible solutions or the infrastructure sector from which the need arises.

Objective framing of needs allows

  1. identification of common need that spans multiple sectors
  2. possible solutions to identified needs to be analysed from a systemic perspective.

Unfortunately, there is currently a tendency to frame needs in a ‘solution-dependent’ way.  The Infrastructure Commission has the opportunity to address this by framing needs arising from any needs assessment in an objective ‘solution-neutral’ manner.

For example, the need ‘extra reservoir capacity in the south-east of England’ identified in previous work relating to needs assessment, is framed in a ‘solution-dependent’ way, and links a possible solution into the statement of need. As a consequence, visibility of the underlying need which is ‘increased capacity to supply water to a growing population in the south-east of England’ is obscured and the opportunity to consider alternative solutions from a systemic perspective restricted.

The principle illustrated here is that only by identifying needs objectively, independent of solutions, can possible responses be assessed, the scale (local, regional, national) at which a need is best addressed and possible solutions be openly discussed.

Solution selection - Take a cross sectoral approach to translating needs into solutions

The move from an agreed ‘solution-neutral’ need to an agreed solution is not a trivial step. Therefore, a clearly defined, transparent, evidence based process is required to convert ‘solution-neutral’ needs into ‘fit-for-purpose’ infrastructure solutions. The Infrastructure Commission has the opportunity to establish such a process, and embed systemic principles into the way in which infrastructure solutions are selected in the UK.

The adoption of such a process will provide confidence that once any infrastructure solution is selected, a complete evidence trail can be traced from a statement of societally desired outcome, through an objective identification of need to the decision to implement the chosen infrastructure solution.

Subject to regular review – Remain ‘fit for purpose’

Long term infrastructure needs identified through any needs assessment should be subject to regular review to confirm that the need identified remains ‘fit for purpose’. This is particularly significant because the PESTLE (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental) components that comprise the context from which the demand for infrastructure arises are subject to continual change.

Dr Tom Dolan is Research Associate and Centre Co-ordinator, International Centre for Infrastructure Futures (ICIF)).

If you would like to contact Jackie Whitelaw about this, or any other story, please email jackie.whitelaw@infrastructure-intelligence.com.