Jim Hall: System-of-systems methodology for national infrastructure assessment

Liverpool, on September 15th 1830, underwent what was later described as the opening of an epoch: large crowds gathered to watch Prime Minister Arthur Wellesley depart the city on the inaugural journey of the world’s first fully steam-powered railway. The new railway linked the industrial powerhouse of Manchester with the Port of Liverpool, allowing for the transport of raw material, goods, and people. Abroad, the railway set the standard of practice for railroad design in Europe and beyond. The weight of the moment cannot be understated: a new epoch had indeed begun, one which saw the industrialising UK seize greater opportunities for collaboration and investment; people migrated across the country with greater ease, binding societies and industry tighter together.

The inaugural Liverpool-Manchester journey took four hours and forty minutes. Flash forward to more than a century later and that journey is now four times as fast. The story remains the same for much of the UK: towards the end of the 20th century over 7,000 miles of track had been laid in England and Scotland, transforming the landscape as opportunities for commerce and travel fuelled economic growth, changing society ever since. Such dependencies reached beyond transport: the UK has 3,500 km (2,200 miles) of navigable waterways, 8,700 km (5,406 miles) of powerlines, and at least 70,006 km (43,500 miles) of sewer. Infrastructure has become the physical fabric of society, weaving together cities and people, having become inexorably bound to the UK’s development.

Despite its historical vitality the UK’s infrastructure, and networks across the globe, is threatened: as global average temperatures march implacably higher, seemingly breaking temperature records at yearly intervals, extreme climatic events are expected to increase in frequency and intensity. Floods, fires, heat waves, and hurricanes will put upon networks an unprecedented stress not experienced before in their service life. Climate change is shifting the baseline. It’s not hard to imagine how the collapse of infrastructure would damage a nation given the growth it has provided since industrialisation. As such, it’s unsurprising that the future efficacy and resilience of networks in the face of climate scenarios and the broad stroke of uncertainty accompanying them have become a critical point of discussion.

Professor Jim Hall, Professor of Climate and Environmental Risks at the University of Oxford, has directed his career to lean into these uncertainties and provide answers to the questions plaguing policy makers, operators, and practitioners alike. Visiting the Institute for Risk and Uncertainty he detailed the key problems facing UK infrastructure and how we might inform adaptation in the face of climate uncertainty. Key questions facing adaptation revolve around how system capacity and demand can be balanced in an uncertain future, how these systems should be managed and how they might fail, as well as how these systems interact, and thus impact, upon the economy and society. Key to answering these questions is the concept of dependency; infrastructure is both influenced by demand whilst itself influencing regional development. Transport, for example, allows for the movement of produce and resources, enables greater migration, and widens the pool of knowledge which drives innovation. However failures in a transport system will result in cascading failures that reach beyond their immediate impact. In 2012 50mm of rain fell on Newcastle upon Tyne within the space of two hours, equal to the average monthly total. Roads were impassable; public transport was cancelled, and road travel slowed down to such a languid pace that cars ran out of fuel. People abandoned their vehicles. Flooded roads are the first cause of deaths in cities, but their reach expanded beyond the direct impact on travel: businesses and social functioning suffer as materials, products, and communication is delayed or destroyed; it’s been estimated that for each main road affected one hundred thousand pounds per hour is lost. Newcastle City Council estimated the flooding cost three million pounds. In regards to cascading failures Professor Jim Hall stated that interedepencies with other networks inform the criticality of system risk, with the negative impacts of events disproportionately scaling up due to their impact on dependent networks and thus increasing the costs stemming from natural disasters. For example, much of the UK’s sewer system has a Victorian heritage that mixes storm-water drainage with effluent. The capacity of such systems were not built with the capacity of future climate projections in mind and an increased likelihood of surcharge would contribute to the adverse impacts of flooding. In addition, the mixed-system provides a public health risk creating additional health stresses.

The impact extreme climatic events have on networks can be mitigated by how infrastructure is managed. Losses from natural catastrophes are increasing: in middle-income countries investments in resilience and adaptation have reduced the associated costs, however for poorer countries the costs associated with damage can prevent investment into infrastructure, establishing a cycle of damage and effecting a debilitating or stunted networks. Advanced economies face a different problem: many have aging infrastructure that needs considerable investment; in 2007 the American Society of Civil Engineers stated that the failure of the U.S. government to maintain its public infrastructure meant that more than a trillion and a half dollars over five years would be needed to bring it up to standard. The costs of not rising to meet this challenge are broad and substantial: nations will fall behind competitively, both economically and socially, as productivity and supply lessens, labour and product markets shrink, and opportunities for collocation are lost. Combined with the disruptive impact of climatic events the costs associate with poor risk management are significant.

How can such a complex and large challenge be met? Professor Jim Hall suggests that individual action cannot address the enormous problems facing infrastructure, and that the key to success is collaboration. Strategies must be cross-sectional, weaving together expertise in academia and industry to inform and understand the needs of operators and regulatory entities. This also requires cooperation across the market sector between different companies as well as public bodies. Only through collaboration can the requirements of long-term resilience and infrastructure provision, insight into vulnerabilities, and targeted adaptation strategies be understood to minimise risk. A significant aspect of understanding how to reduce risk posed to infrastructure and limiting the impact of cascading failures is recognising that natural events aren’t bound by regional or international boundaries and that developments towards robust infrastructure require co-operation in order reduce risk. Therefore, not only do developments require co-operation between regions and entities, but also hold an international outlook. Infrastructure is integral to the social and economic functioning of a nation, however if strong collaborative goals are not met then a toxic combination of ailing networks and looming environmental hazards will undermine the potential of countries to meet the success provided by the last couple of centuries of development.