Comment: Maintaining the safety of critical infrastructure

A change to governmental policy and investment in the training and facilitating of trainee engineers will be at the centre of transforming attitudes towards the maintenance of critical infrastructure around the world, says Chris White, head of programme delivery at Lloyd’s Register Foundation.


Defining safety critical infrastructure

Broadly defined, safety critical infrastructure is the infrastructure in which society depends upon. This could include technical and industrial infrastructure such as that which produces energy and transports global trade and food around the world, for instance ports. Or it could be transport, communications, water, and waste. Ultimately, context determines how safety critical infrastructure is defined and different communities will deem various infrastructure more or less critical to them depending on their needs or requirements.

In a Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s report, ‘How do we ensure the future safety of the complex critical infrastructure on which modern society relies?’, energy and transport infrastructure are the focus of the discussion. As an organisation that focuses on safety, this new report, produced in collaboration with TUV SUD, provides a review of infrastructure management and maintenance to enable that infrastructure to be in a safe state for society’s use. This includes energy generation, transmission and storage and various forms of transport including rail, road, and sea.

The report states that, once the aims and scope of critical infrastructure have been established, ways of maintaining them and the best practice for doing so can be explored. When maintained well, safety critical infrastructure should be dependable, and should not cause any disturbance to the people who rely on it. However, problems occur when maintenance is not prioritised or not carried out in the right way. This can lead to disruptions to travel or energy provision which has a cascading impact of people in a community.

In countries with relatively immature infrastructure, maintenance issues are exacerbated in a time of crisis. However, in countries with the right level of maintenance, response times are quick, and infrastructure is built to withstand certain disasters.

This is why a system-wide approach to safety, focused on multiple casual factors of poor performance of infrastructure, is needed. Because of climate change, current practice is evolving to include recovery as well as prevention which will shape how different countries prioritise investment in infrastructure. But to properly reinvent the way we think about safer infrastructure, the next generation of engineers need to be brought on board with this approach and be ready to implement it in future designs.

Narrowing gaps in provision

Growing and sustaining a pool of engineering talent is an enduring challenge. While automation of many processes is likely to lead to a reduction in demand for many vocational skills and trades, pre-automated skills may still be required for situations where only human intervention is a solution.

There is an ever-widening skills gap in the requirement of people to provide safe infrastructure. This is something that was highlighted at the African session of the Brunel International Lecture Series in 2021, where panellists, including representatives from Resilience Rising, emphasised the lack of engineering students in sub-Saharan African countries. ‘To meet similar levels of engineer per head of population as OECD countries, the number of students will need to exceed 10 million by 2050’,[1] Seth Schultz, said at the conference.

Figures from the World Economic Forum pose a potential solution to this problem. It estimates that 15 to 20 million young people will join the workforce every year for the next two decades and by 2030, Africa will be home to more than a quarter of the world’s population under 25.[2]

Faced with a golden opportunity, as the rest of the world’s population gets older, the economic prosperity and social stability of Africa will ultimately be what decides the future of many young, talented people. A policy shift and an injection of funding is what many countries around the world are missing[3] and is what could turn pools of budding, young talent into engineers of the future. But while extra money would not go amiss in the nurturing of engineering talent, shifting an engrained attitude from treating infrastructure as individual components to entire systems will be key to establishing well-maintained infrastructure that can stand the test of time.

The costs associated with maintaining infrastructure are also a key challenge those in the industry must contend with. World-wide, around $1.5tn is spent on maintaining and renewing infrastructure.[4] In rail, for example, it is estimated that infrastructure maintenance accounts for 50 per cent of the overall cost of operating fleets.[5]

Finding the money to invest in infrastructure projects is a challenge for any government trying to balance fiscal responsibilities. But a change in attitudes is also necessary to shift priorities and in turn focus efforts on budgeting for preventative infrastructure repairs.

As urbanisation causes city populations to expand exponentially, placing additional stress on already stretched resources, the complexity of safety critical infrastructure will only increase. Ultimately, a change to governmental policy and investment in the training and facilitating of trainee engineers will be at the centre of transforming attitudes towards the maintenance of critical infrastructure around the world.

Chris White, head of programme delivery at Lloyd’s Register Foundation


[1] Massive collaboration needed to fill African engineering skills gap | Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE)

[2] Why the skills gap remains wider in Africa | World Economic Forum (

[3] The Need for Science Funding | Science for the Public