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Infrastructure Transition Research Consortium to understand the vulnerability of the UK economy to infrastructure disruption



Infrastructure is an essential component of a functioning economy and a modern industrial society. We all interact with some form of the infrastructure system on a daily basis whether we are travelling to work, surfing the web or turning on the kettle. However, with significant demographic and environmental change on the horizon, ageing UK infrastructure, and increasing complexity and interdependence between networks of infrastructure, research focusing on UK National Infrastructure (NI) as a system is of paramount importance. Such research is necessary in order to improve our understanding of the costs and benefits of alternative NI strategies and the long-term implications for the UK with respect to infrastructure provision, resilience and economic growth.

The InfrastructureTransitions Research Consortium (ITRC) has been funded by a £4.5 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) to develop and demonstrate a new generation of system simulation tools to inform the analysis, planning and design of NI. University support for the research programme is worth another £1 million and the programme also benefits from £1.6 million of support from industry and government departments and agencies. Led by Jim Hall of the University of Oxford, the research programme deals with energy, transport, water, waste and ICT systems at both the nation and local scale, and will develop new methods for analysing their performance, risks and interdependencies. Led by Professor Peter Tyler, the University of Cambridge plays a key role in the Consortium’s research, across the programme’s work streams.
The five-year ITRC research programme began in January 2011. In its first year the ITRC produced a Fast Track Analysis using existing tools and models, to demonstrate a ‘proof-of-concept’ approach to integrated NI analysis that will be continued in later years through the development of a new generation of system simulation models for NI assessment that will be ready for pilot application in 2013. The project is divided into five work streams, as shown in Figure below.
ITRC flow

Work Stream 1

Work Stream 1 (WS1) is developing a system of quantified capacity/demand assessment modules (CDAM) for analysis of long term strategies for infrastructure provision. WS1 will develop a simulation framework to evaluate the performance of alternative strategies under an extensively sampled uncertainty space in order to distinguish strategies whose performance is robust to a range of uncertainties from those that perform well only over a much narrower set of future conditions.  This system will combine, in an integrated manner, alongside modules to sample the uncertainty space and post-process and visualise the results:

  • A micro-simulation model for generation of high resolution demographic and demand scenarios.
  • A regional economic model that will generate regional multi-sectoral projections of industrial demand for infrastructure services.
  • A model of the UK electricity and gas networks and a new disaggregated energy demand module.
  • A national strategic model of trunk road, rail, port and airport infrastructure.
  • A national water resources system model, coupled with a model of wastewater treatment systems.
  • A national solid waste assessment model.

Professor Peter Tyler is working on WS1, alongside Chris Thoung from Cambridge Econometrics (CE) to provide the regional multi-sectoral projections from CE’s MDM-E3 model of the UK economy.

Work Stream 2

The aim of this work stream is to develop network models that can analyse the vulnerability of interdependent infrastructure systems and the risks of infrastructure failure to people and the economy, in present and future climate and socio-economic scenarios. Some of the questions that WS2 will try to answer include:

  • What is the risk of NI failure in present and future climates?
  • What are the potential consequences of major infrastructure failures for people and the economy?
  • What are the costs of mitigating these risks on the economy?

In WS2 there will be particular focus on climate-related hazards and their implications for infrastructure reliability. WS2 will therefore provide a basis for planning for infrastructure adaptation to climate change.

Scott Kelly from the Cambridge Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research (4CMR) will be leading the economic input for WS2. The Cambridge team will be developing an input-output model for the UK economy that aims to quantify the physical and economic impact of natural and climate related hazards on national infrastructure and the economy. A key strength of input-output based methods is that flows through the economy can be quantified through inter-linkages between industry sectors. Thus cumulative flow on effects of a natural disaster in the economy may be much greater than the direct impact caused by the initial shock. Indirect effects can be significant and using Leontief-based input-output methods it is possible to identify those parts of the economic system that are most vulnerable to disruption.

Work Stream 3

On Work Stream 3 (WS3) the Universities of Cambridge, Southampton and Leeds are exploring a variety of complex systems approaches to simulate and interpret the long term interactions between infrastructure, society and economy. These simulations will examine a variety of infrastructure transitions – the shifting of an infrastructure system from one state to another - to inform us on how the NI adjusts over time.  Edward Oughton from the Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge, is researching the inter-relationships between different levels of infrastructure provision and the long term development of local economies, from an evolutionary economic perspective.

Edward intends to focus on the role of infrastructure in the mechanisms of evolutionary economic growth and how these processes influence the spatial distribution of economic activity. Infrastructure plays an important part in this process as the NI closely affects the geographies of production, distribution and consumption. The quality and quantity of NI is therefore viewed as an important variable in local, regional and national productivity, with the NI providing the necessary building blocks for development. Economic agents are heterogeneous in the way in which they utilise elements of the NI, and over time hereditary information is built up which influences the competitive market process and leads to path dependent outcomes. This results in the NI having both direct and indirect economic consequences on local economies.

This evolutionary perspective acknowledges that over time the NI system and society co-evolve together as a result of innovation, leading to the shaping and reshaping of the physical (infrastructural) landscape, which may lead to different trajectories of economic development, in spatial terms. This co-evolution takes place through a series of transitions in routines, technologies, legislation, policy, networks, institutions and most importantly, infrastructures.

The application of this evolutionary approach to an examination of infrastructure supply has the potential to provide new insights into how the NI system encourages economic development on the demand side. An essential element of the Consortium’s research is the concept of transition and an empirical examination of past infrastructural transitions will help to inform the analysis, planning and design of NI. Conclusions will be drawn on the spatial implications of infrastructure provision and will be fed into the other Work Streams. These results will help to develop the ITRC’s overall aim of developing integrated strategies for transitions in NI systems.
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4CMR has finished its cycle, and has been replaced by the Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance (C-EENRG). C-EENRG is also located in the Department of Land Economy, with a core mission to "conduct integrative research on the governance of environmental transitions, understood as social and technological processes driven by environmental constraints that lead to fundamental changes in social organisation."

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