01 September 2017

At the start of a new infrastructure research initiative, Professor Brian Collins sets out the challenges and their approach.

Research and innovation in national and local infrastructure systems and services have become a focal point for investment in the UK and beyond. They are seen to contribute significantly to policy decisions at national and city level that are aimed to deliver on economic growth forecasts, enhanced quality of life and achievement of climate change targets. Infrastructure has a vital role to play in meeting the UK’s economic, social, environmental and international ambitions.

However, many of the structures and accepted norms within current research programmes are based on an increasingly outdated understanding of the needs of nations and cities and the way they work. Rather than being predicated on a largely hierarchical divided, scalar, regional and sectoral model, cities are becoming increasingly influential, creating their own future visions, and collaborating with each other in many and varied combinations both within the UK and beyond, but invariably at a sub-national level.  National economic infrastructure is largely privatized and sectorally (indeed sub-sectorally) divided, but operates as a richly interdependent set of services, systems and subsystems at a range of scales.  As foreign investment in infrastructure systems and networks increases, trans-national corporate governance priorities may also come into conflict with these national hierarchies, with fiscal and political consequences.  UK Research investment across this multi-dimensional landscape is insufficient given the scale of the >£500B investment planned in the National Infrastructure Pipeline. Coordination of this research investment is almost non-existent.

Thus, there is an urgent need and a timely opportunity to invest in and carry out research at very large scale. This will include research into how to exploit recent major advances in scientific understanding (including the social and environmental sciences), multidisciplinary systems thinking, technological innovation and engineering methods to adapt and augment the national economic infrastructure, carbon reduction, extreme event resilience, social well being, environmental sustainability and export potential.  A further research challenge is to provide an understanding of how well all aspects of infrastructure symbiotically serve the evolving needs and ambitions of nations and cities within the UK. 

Stepping up to the challenge, many of the UK's leading universities have joined forces as part of the UK Collaboratorium for Research in Infrastructure & Cities (UKCRIC). Launching in September, UKCRIC is the next step towards a coordinated and coherent, world class, UK-based national infrastructure research community. Initially spanning 14 universities, UKCRIC was formed and is funded to address the urgent need, and transformative opportunity, to develop and exploit major advances in scientific and engineering understanding (in materials, mechanics, systems thinking, data handling, sensor technology and in the social and environmental sciences) and connect these with the evolving needs and ambitions of the UK and cities within the UK and elsewhere.

For the first time, industry, government and policy makers will be have a single point of contact to access world-class researchers at the cutting edge of infrastructure and engineering research, with a focus on society, sustainability (environmental and financial), resilience and global opportunity. By linking the universities through a central Coordination Node, a range of stakeholders including industry, city leaders and other end users can provide direct feedback on the national research strategy and quickly engage with emerging findings. This direct engagement will ensure research delivered by UKCRIC has been shaped by a range of considerations and voices. It will consider how, where and when technological, engineering and process advances can be exploited to best effect across the infrastructure and urban systems landscape, while allowing for the development of potential disruptors and changes in philosophy, for example from “predict and provide” to “decide and create”.

We will be exploring how to initiate a co-ordinated global infrastructure research program on long term infrastructure and land use planning and to help create not only best practice benchmarks but new knowledge to better inform strategies for long term prosperity at next month’s International Symposium on Next Generation Infrastructure (ISNGI 2017). I hope you will join us for what will be the formal launch of UKCRIC. We hope this program will help the formation of international and interdisciplinary research collaborations explore the development of Next Generation Infrastructure (NGI) in the context of understanding the interactions between infrastructure, the population it serves, technology and sustainability both now and into the future. 

For a full programme, including details of research presentation and guest panellists, see http://isngi.org/programme . You have until 5th September to register for #ISNGI at isngi.org.

Professor Brian Collins is Professor of Engineering Policy at UCL, Director of the International Centre for Infrastructure Futures (ICIF), and Convenor of UKCRIC.  

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