Infrastructure & Systems Thinking


Neil Carhart

The Civil Engineering profession is entering a period of increased focus on complexity, interdependency, the effective delivery of stakeholder outcomes, and for some, the fundamentally broadening of what it means to be a Civil Engineer. Much of this comes from increased urbanisation, demands for sustainability and resilience, digital innovations and a need among western nations to renew their infrastructure.

The current approach to infrastructure planning and delivery within the UK has been criticised for being “fragmented and reactive[1]The Armitt Review [2] of Infrastructure reported that “when long term decisions are made, they can be taken in silos with little acknowledgement of the interdependencies between sectors”.  This is in contradiction to the widely held view of infrastructure as an interdependent network of smaller networks[3]. The Royal Academy of Engineering [4]  submitted to this review that: “A systems approach to infrastructure planning will be essential, noting the interdependencies between infrastructure sectors, and the opportunities for creating dual use infrastructure and co-locating services where possible”.  Past President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) Prof Paul Jowitt [5] also explicitly advocated “a systems view” to strategic infrastructure planning.  He wrote that “the need for systems-level decision-making for large-scale infrastructure proposals has never been greater.  One way or the other, it comes down to our ability to take a systems view and make decisions accordingly”.

In October 2016 the ICE launched its National Needs Assessment vision for UK infrastructure[6]. In launching this David Gauke MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury warned against “ignoring the interdependencies that exist across different sectors”.  Understanding interdependencies, and how desired outcomes emerge from them, is at the heart of Systems Engineering.  The National Needs Assessment itself is wide reaching but includes the following:

Economic infrastructure sectors are typically viewed in isolation. The result has been organisations operating in silos and frequently uncoordinated decision making. This means that the interdependencies between infrastructure sectors have not been properly accounted for […] Analysing the national infrastructure as a system-of-systems allows these important interdependencies to be captured and quantified and measures to maximise efficiency to be identified.

The increased advocacy for the adoption of a systems approach to the challenges of infrastructure also exists internationally. An ICE report on developing and shaping Hong Kong’s infrastructure[7] makes three recommendations.  The second of these is the adoption of Systems Thinking.  It says:

In some ways, systems thinking is common sense. We instinctively know that changes in one area of the city’s transport system will have impacts on the rest of the network.  We understand that transport will influence decisions around where to site housing or commercial development and that this will create demands for energy, water and other services. Turning this common sense insight into a decision making process that delivers high performing infrastructure networks is a challenge facing engineers and decision makers across the globe.

Engineering the built environment presents many ill-defined, messy, interacting challenges that cut across social, economic, environmental, political, legal and technical domains in space and time.  Pre-emptively placing artificial tight boundaries in order to treat these challenges in relative isolation from one another is appealing in the false sense of simplicity and comfort it can create, but it is ultimately short-sighted.

The alternative is to embrace the complexity of the problem and the context within which it sits as fully as possible.  Systems Thinking and Systems Engineering offer methods and tools with the potential to explore and manage these situations, leaving us better prepared to avoid the hazards and exploit the opportunities they present.

[1] HM Treasury & Infrastructure UK, 2011. National Infrastructure Plan 2011

[2] Armitt, J., 2013. The Armitt Review: An Independent Review of Long Term Infrastructure Planning Commissioned for Labour’s Policy Review

[3] Council for Science and Technology, 2009. A National Infrastructure for the 21st Century

[4] The Royal Academy of Engineering, 2013. Independent Armitt Review of Infrastructure – Submitted by the Royal Academy of Engineering to Sir John Armitt,

[5] Jowitt, P., 2015. Why the Adonis Infrastructure Commission needs a systems approach. Infrastructure Intelligence.

[6] Institution of Civil engineers, 2016, National Needs Assessment.

[7] Institution of Civil Engineers, 2015, Infrastructure: Shaping Hong Kong