Infrastructure

In 2013  consultants McKinsey estimated the global need for infrastructure investment as $57 trillion by 2030 – just to keep pace with current global rates of the growth of GDP.

Infrastructure is the underlying framework underpinning all of the facilities, services and installations needed for a community, society, city, region or nation to function. It includes buildings, roads, railways, aviation, ports, communication and energy (electrical power, gas) plant and distribution networks, water and food supplies, waste disposal, flood and coastal protection, emergency services, housing, public institutions such as schools and hospitals and even prisons.

The UK government says that improving productivity is a vital element of its long term economic plan. The UK National Infrastructure Plan [H. M. Treasury 2014] states that ‘High‑quality infrastructure boosts productivity and competitiveness, allowing businesses to grow and enabling them to reach suppliers, deepen labour and product markets, collaborate and innovate and attract inward investment. The choices that we make about infrastructure enable us to shape the type of economy and society that we want for the future. Infrastructure has the capacity to unlock economic potential in individual regions and ensure that growth and opportunities are distributed across the country, while also creating networks which bind together the different parts of the UK. Investment in infrastructure also helps the government to deliver new housing and business development where it is most needed.’

In a democracy big political decisions, especially if they are costly, derive from public opinion and from the need to get votes. As a consequence it is difficult for our political leaders to make decisions about complex technical matters. This has been, and still is, particularly true about dealing with the possible effects of climate change.

The UK infrastructure system is a highly complex, interdependent set of networks and assets that rely on each other to work effectively. Much of the key infrastructure of the UK is fragmented because much of it is held in private hands. Our infrastructure policies have been piecemeal and fragmented. As a consequence we are seeing increasing susceptibilities to ‘domino’ effects cascading and spreading from only small damage. Highly interconnected systems like electrical power supplies and the internet are, in certain circumstances, particular sensitive. We have to get to grips with both the detail and the ‘big picture’ of how these systems interact with each other.

The old certainties have gone – we have to be ready for jolts and surprises and we have to have strategies for coping with them. To do that we need infrastructure that is resilient, agile and adaptable. We have to create infrastructure systems that expect the unexpected. We cannot expect to define our future on the basis that it will be similar to our past — with minor improvements. We need toestablish what success looks like for all of us collaboratively working together and ensure we have a way of measuring it. We need to establish, as far as we are able to, what is necessary and what is sufficient to get to a success that provides us with opportunities for both corporate and individual benefit.

If we think of the whole process of creating infrastructure starting from an idea (say for a new or replacement bridge) and as ending with a facility in reality (the bridge operating and eventually being decommissioned), then in the early stages the ‘what’ attributes refer not to the final product (the bridge) but a user need. That need supplies a purpose from which an intention to build is derived. The product of these earlier sub-processes is a representation of this intention in the form of shared information. This takes many forms, but at the first concept meeting it might be a series of 6B pencil sketches, and immediately prior to the building process on site it consists of the contract documents. Thus the whole process of construction consists of a set of sub- processes each with outputs which are the top level need (e.g. to shorten a journey), an evolving representation of the final product (the bridge) and, the actual product (the actual steel or concrete bridge).

Rethinking our infrastructure requires systems-thinking.