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24th March 2021, Virtual Discussion

"Without infrastructure there is no economy, there are no markets, and we would both freeze and starve.  The spatial organisation of our country is governed by infrastructure choices going back millennia.  London is where it is because of the gravel beds which made it possible to approach and cross the Thames where London Bridge now stands.  Romans built roads to link towns which stand on crossing places for other rivers, Newark on the Trent, Lincoln on the Witham, York on the Ouse and Foss.  Not just transport: fuel choices and availability make activity possible, from wood to coal to sun and wind. Infrastructure choices therefore echo down the centuries and affect generations to come, the backbone of society and the economy, its productivity and people's welfare.  And it has to be planned and paid for.  Those Roman roads were just as much a government project as Hinckley Point C. Government is now and always has been involved in infrastructure." - Bridget Rosewell CBE

Image courtesy of Bridget Rosewell


The Speaker

The discussion was introduced by Bridget Rosewell CBE.

Bridget is a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers and an economist by background, working on the appraisal and business cases for large projects from cement plants to High-Speed Rail.  She is currently a Commissioner for the National Infrastructure Commission as well as Chairman of Atom Bank and the M6 Toll. She was Chief Economist for the Greater London Authority for ten years to 2012 and publishes on appraisal methodologies, planning, and economics dynamics. She is a Professor in Practice at Durham University.

Introductory Presentation

Bridget introduced the topic with the following presentation:

Infrastructure is often invisible, below the ground – but is the bones and sinews of our lives.  Like our own skeletons, it is only noticed when its broken.  It has a long life and is well connected.  It is governed by the past which casts a long shadow, but it is also crucial to how we think about the future.

Given its long life, what is the future that we wish to live in and how do we create it?  It is not just business as usual, if we want a healthy and sustainable planet, though we cannot ignore that shadow.

There are two threads always present in thinking about infrastructure: governments want it for their own purposes and there is always a challenge to pay for it, in construction, in maintenance and in use.

Roman roads, the silk road, the internet. Empires have raised taxes to build infrastructure and charged to use it throughout human history.  We are not new. ‘Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds’ – misquote of Herodotus about the Persian Empire.

So, what is it? The National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) definition: water, waste, flood, energy, transport, telecoms.  None of these are new, except for telecoms, which could be seen as another form of transport.

How have we thought about it? That is also two questions, one about planning and the other about managing.

Central government plans, controls, and supplies flood management for instance through its agency the Environmental Agency, roads through financial availability and Highways England – free at the point of use but paid for by everyone regardless. There is only one toll road in the UK.  Central planning has been tried and is still being tried. That is predict and provide. This is our answer to the related but different problem of health care.  It is centrally planned if not centrally delivered and government decides how much there should be and how much resource is needed.  We then queue and have no say.

One possibility of avoiding this is local control.  Not central, but local planning, or devolution.  We have not used this model since the 19th century but it created the bones of the gas network, the water and sewerage systems and the initial electricity systems. Electric light in east London, gas in Birmingham.

Another is expert control.  This is our current model for most of infrastructure – Ofgem, Ofwat, Ofcom. This are not the same as regulation by standards – DWI, EA, RSSB etc.  Those are mandatory controls which protect users from things they cannot know about before they use the system.  Is it safe?  The economic regulators are designed to be a modelled substitute for the competitive process, so the outcomes are ‘as if’.  History has created monopolies and we, through regulation will make them behave as if they are not.

That has downsides too.  It is a static version of competition, with no genuine focus on customers, present or future.  It stifles innovation, as it can only be allowed on the regulators’ terms. It creates an environment in which there is only one version of the truth and the future cannot be imagined differently from the past.

Regulators set price controls to ensure efficiency and cheapest possible – water, waste, energy, telecoms, private companies supply. 

At the other end of the spectrum there is an absence of planning. This is how our railways and our mobile networks were invested in.  It can lead to both over and under supply, but it is only apparent later which is which.  Such apparent chaos will try to respond to where demand is thought to be, so that users will create payback.  It is a process of discovery and some things will fail.  I would submit that on the whole it has worked better than central planning but it does have risks and can create monopolies later.

Railways are the emotional exception. Fares are paid but the subsidy is huge. Rail does things nothing else does and generates benefits by doing so.  Disentangling this model is hard.

Our recent history has been about efficient systems on the assumption that the economy sorts itself out. That has manifestly been shown not to be true. We have been thinking more about the purpose of transport, for example and the consequences of particular investments.  That means taking longer term views and making bets about how to deliver the future or at least the one we are told we want.

Yet infrastructure is for people and their communities.  They want to make complex trips with flexibility to change their behaviours. They do not want to know about technicalities. They do not want to be done to, but done with.  Thus, systems thinking is great but your head explodes very quickly with such complexities. So - what do engineers bring to the table - What is the role of engineers in Planning Infrastructure?

Bridget then set the discussion groups the following questions:

  • What is the role of engineers in managing/planning infrastructure?

  • How do we engage communities in infrastructure decisions?

  • Should local/regional/national governments plan infrastructure?

  • Could we have a systems approach to infrastructure?

  • Should companies plan and provide infrastructure?

  • How do we contribute to net zero?


What is the role of engineers in Planning Infrastructure?

Our late President, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, highlighted the vital work of engineers both in the past and into the future. According to Prince Philip, it would be hard to imagine a life without the contribution of engineers, who were responsible for "the whole of our infrastructure, from sewers to overhead cables, power supplies and communication."

"Everything not invented by God is invented by engineers," he said. Engineers had in their hands the future of humanity, as the world faces the issue of population growth and trying to balance housing infrastructure with conservation.

Engineers should be involved in the planning, delivery, and management of infrastructure. They should certainly not be the only actors, and not always the prime actors, as was often the case in the Victorian era. Modern infrastructure projects need much wider engagement. There are multiple roles associated with managing and planning  infrastructure today - consultants and planners, owners and operators, politicians, business leaders, entrepreneurs, financiers, investors and of course designers and constructors. It is perhaps the huge number of different interested parties involved in any major infrastructure programme today that has challenged and sometimes confused, the role of the engineer.

Is it to deliver the solution set within boundaries and constraints of any one programme or is it to offer a range of solutions and options – pushing the boundaries of todays technologies and in doing so offering new opportunities and new horizons? The role of the engineer is to do both, but at the right time.

Government policy makers and civil servants focus on developing policy but are weaker on understanding how to deliver the outcomes when infrastructure programmes are defined as the solution, together with the complex risk profiles that accompany them. Engineers need to advise government in all aspects of the planning phases. The relationship between medical experts and the government as seen during the Covid-19 pandemic might be the model for engineers to follow in the future. As there is a ‘chief scientific advisor’, so there should be a’ chief engineering advisor’. Rather than politicians ‘following the science’ they should also ‘follow the engineering’. But it was pointed out that engineers are not the best communicators - engineers have a language problem.  There is a need for engineers to make advice clear to those they wish to advise and influence. One challenge in the language barrier is that engineers think long-term, and politicians think short term.

In delivering the solution of any one programme the engineer is central to the complex technologies and engineering disciplines that have to come together to deliver the physical asset, and the digital asset that will define how the infrastructure will operate across the entire life cycle. With an increasing awareness for the need for infrastructure to be ‘smart’, the data sets that are generated from embedded sensors throughout its operational life, will inform infrastructure assets of the need to adapt to its changing environmental conditions. How fast will Artificial Intelligence (AI) become part of the engineer’s remit? Engineers need to be challenged more often in areas that sit at the edge of their comfort zone. They need to say, “Why not”, rather than Why?”

Engineers are the ones who should do the horizon-scanning for these new innovations and be aware of emerging technology. Given the long andincreasing timescales for inception and creation of infrastructure projects, not to mention their exceptionally long lifetime, engineers are the ones who can future-proof them, by designing in new technologies which will be fully proven by the time they are needed.

But the primary role of an engineer is to understand and find solutions for complex problems and systems that are central to our infrastructure networks and that deliver the resilience to absorb ‘shock’, from extreme weather events or abnormal loading . As such the vital role of engineers during the planning of infrastructure can be summarised as “to ensure the optimal use of technology in delivering the desired infrastructure outcomes”. The better engineers simplify complex options and solutions so decision-makers can fully understand the challenges and implications. This should include all aspects of a programme including the commercial and cost management, programming, risk, quality, and assurance processes. Engineers should have wider financial skills. Some even said engineers need to be better economists.

How do we engage communities in infrastructure decisions?

The strategic need for infrastructure programmes is often made at a national level taking the decision whether or not to invest in major programmes away from the communities they serve or affect. Permission to invest in and deliver large infrastructure programmes is sensitive and often splits communities for different reason based on knowledge and understanding. As a minimum communication and awareness is required by communities and where possible engagement should result in alignment and support from the majority of those that will be affected.

Infrastructure consultation is often approached in the wrong way. It is not started early enough. Relationships with local leaders are not built early enough within the process with the result that local leaders do not feel they have ownership. When we engage early it is often surprising how valuable the responses are. We should step back and look at what is done in other countries, establishing local needs, and engaging in different ways to help everyone make informed choices based on the facts, economics, and sound engineering.

Often the consultation splits generations who have been conditioned to take different views depending on their experience and awareness. Part of educating adults can be achieved by educating their children who then pass the message on. Issues relating to the environment for instance are often taken for granted within some parts of society, while others struggle to align with emerging science and public opinion. These ‘background’ issues will be encountered during wider consultations.

A big challenge of engaging communities early is what to consult on and how to bring people along with the ideas being proposed - general concepts or completed designs. It will rarely be a finished design but usually a ‘definition of the need’ or the options being considered. It was suggested that Engineers are often keen to communicate well defined, completed solutions while the communities that are being consulted would prefer to help create the solution.

Should local/regional/national governments plan infrastructure?

The group were clear that infrastructure should be planned by those best placed to ensure optimal outcomes for all stakeholders.  In practice this means that each and all of the local/regional/national governments have a role to play.  The point was made that we need to adopt a structured approach to planning with a nested and co-ordinated set of national, regional, and local plans.

The group observed that planning of different sorts of infrastructure (transport, energy, water supply, flood defence, wastewater, solid waste and so on) had different requirements. An obvious example of this is in the planning of flood defences which must sensibly be based on hydrological catchments, not administrative boundaries.  The same rationale applies to a greater or lesser extent to all infrastructure systems.

The point was also made that as technology and the needs of society evolve, the group who need to be involved in planning infrastructure changes too.   A good example of this is provided by the electrical power generation and distribution infrastructure. Local independent generation and distribution systems have evolved into centralised generation and national distribution systems, which more recently have incorporated transnational generation and distribution. But now we see the rapid introduction of more local generation and storage components over a relatively short planning horizon. Few would confidently predict what comes next.

This ‘organic’ development pattern highlights inadequacies of the current UK approach to planning infrastructure systems in isolation of each other. The example of the Lower Thames crossing was briefly discussed. In this case decisions had been made to allow only for a road crossing with additional rail and or communications links apparently dismissed by the promotor.  The comparison was drawn with approaches elsewhere in Europe where rail and road infrastructure were integrated in major crossings as part of the original concept.

Should we have a systems approach to infrastructure?

While infrastructure programmes are often large in scale, they are usually only a small component of a larger system. This requires a systems approach to ensure components are integral to a wider network and have to be planned over longer timeframes. The need to plan for the next 50 years or more is accepted but it is important to understand that much of the infrastructure can only be developed incrementally.

The cost of replacing whole systems - electrical distribution systems for instance over a few years would be beyond the capability of any one organisation, or even a sector. This does not however preclude the introduction of new technologies but means that planning, and policies that drive economic change occur incrementally over several business cycles. The introduction of hydrogen is an example where whole distribution systems have to be installed or existing networks re-purposed if this fuel source is to become economically viable as a low carbon fuel in the future.

The rapid introduction of new cycle lanes in inner-city areas during the pandemic was cited as a good example of why a systems approach was needed. New cycle lanes have been introduced without consultation with other parties and have resulted in a situation where cyclists inconvenience and endanger both pedestrians and motorists with impunity.

There was concern about the need to change public behaviour; and that exhorting behavioural change would not be sufficient; more direct measures were required such as Road Pricing for major highways for motorways which is the model already adopted in much of Europe and the USA.

Not all infrastructure is encumbered with long asset lives. IT equipment for example can be replaced much more easily than the infrastructure it relies on for broadband and network distribution. This  is a sector in which there can be very rapid introduction of innovation and technological advances.

Should companies plan and provide infrastructure?

This discussion highlighted the balance needed between private and public providers of infrastructure and the contributions they make to the overall infrastructure landscape. Many infrastructure companies form part of a regulated industry where the system is balanced through economic and market drivers.

Where the private sector offers the only choice to provide public services the private sector is usually given a very precise role and a contract mechanism to operate within. To some of us, a rather worrying argument exists that companies are less ethical than the public sector - whilst those not from the public sector or academia profoundly disagreed!

A general view is that the future is more uncertain than at any time in our lifetimes. What infrastructure will actually be needed with changing work and social habits? It cannot be known, therefore a pause to new capacity might be needed before sensible new trends emerge. In the meantime, much more emphasis is needed in optimising and fixing what we already have.

How can engineers contribute to Net Zero Carbon?

Infrastructure is long-lived. Much of the infrastructure that will be operating in 2050 is already here today or will be complete in the next few years. Two key interventions are required 1) Engineers will need to improve the efficiency of existing infrastructure as a first priority to reduce its carbon footprint and energy demand, and 2) Reduce the need for new infrastructure through more efficient use of existing systems and the innovative increase of capacity and utilisation, for example increased train numbers on London Underground by improved signalling and safety, and more frequent maintenance cycles.

We must also ensure that infrastructure is planned and developed at a ‘whole system’ level and that the implications of change over time, and across system boundaries, are understood. The ambition for all cars to be powered by electricity by 2030 for instance, must follow a clear understanding of where additional electrical generation will come from. The use of fossil fuels or inter-connectors to deliver future electrical energy demand would be counterproductive and will not deliver Net Zero.

We must adopt a principle of ‘re-use and recycle’ instead of new build. We need more of a “Lego brick” approach, so structures can be easily reconfigured. At present 60% of land-fill waste comes from construction. More of this could be reused, or structures could have their life extended with the use of re-usable products. The re-cycling of ballast on railways schemes should become the norm rather than old ballast being sent to landfill.

Two major contributors of CO2 and global warming from infrastructure and construction projects are the use cement-based concrete, and the use of steel. Engineers should redesign these energy-intensive processes to be low carbon or be carbon-free with sequestration/use (CCSU) built into the end-to-end process.

Above all, engineers have a duty to communicate the true “cost of carbon” to decision-makers, even if this involves alternatives that are neither easy , nor cheap.

Concluding Remarks

Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal, as President of the Society and Chair of the discussion, added her own observations on the subject.

In conclusion, the Speaker reflected on a few of the key themes from the discussion, welcoming the responses from the rapporteurs to her presentation and, in particular, to their reflections on the questions posed. 

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