Although the COVID pandemic has reshaped our collective experience of the world and raised, or at least brought into sharp focus, new priorities for the future, there is one particular pre-COVID challenge that has not gone away and which demands our continued attention. In late 2020, in the midst of the first year of the pandemic, the UK government published the country’s first ever National Infrastructure Strategy. This, in response to sustained encouragement from a variety of stakeholders to meaningfully address the problems of an ageing asset base and the need for a reset of infrastructure provision to deal with climate change and achieve net zero ambitions.
The National infrastructure and Construction Pipeline (published by the Infrastructure and Ports Authority) indicates the magnitude of the challenge; anticipating nearly £650bn of public and private investment over the next 10 years, underpinning projects that will support an average of 425,000 jobs annually. These documents, together with others from the National Infrastructure Commission should be required reading for engineers wishing to better understand the current state and future potential of the UK’s infrastructure systems.
If such a major investment programme is to deliver the raft of benefits expected of it then there is a major role to be played by research and innovation as catalysts for novel materials, structures, technologies, processes and methods. Although the UK has well established and internationally leading research communities in a number of related areas (e.g. civil and structural engineering, materials, data analytics) they have tended to work in isolation with respect to the infrastructure sector as a whole with no single point of contact between the research base and the users of new knowledge.
Partially in order to rectify this gap, the 2015 budget saw the UK government announce a £138m investment in an integrated suite of research and test facilities at universities across the country. Matched funding from the host universities themselves to build these facilities brought the total capital investment closer to £250m, delivering a collection of nationally significant research capabilities under one umbrella – The UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC). UKCRIC develops and invests in research on infrastructure systems and cities; offering new ways of coping with the grand challenges of the 21st century such as climate and demographic change, resource scarcity and social justice. It is composed of three strands: Infrastructure Laboratories, Urban Observatories, and the Data & Analytics Facility for National Infrastructure (DAFNI).
The infrastructure laboratories are a collection of test and development facilities conducting research on the basic science, technology and engineering that underpins the infrastructure sectors. Many of them provide full or near full scale test capabilities and support development of innovative solutions across the energy, water, transport, and construction sectors.
The six urban observatories collect real-time environmental data – on everything from air and water quality to noise pollution and traffic flows – to generate a longitudinal record of activities and associated environmental impacts within a defined geography. Each of the six observatories is linked to a university and the data collected is openly available. They are based in Newcastle, Bristol, Sheffield, Cranfield, Manchester and Birmingham.
DAFNI is the national platform for infrastructure modelling and visualisation, created to satisfy the computational capabilities needed to deliver data analysis, infrastructure research, and strategic thinking for the UK’s long-term infrastructure and cities planning. By providing an integrated and shared platform DAFNI will improve the exploitation of simulation and optimization techniques, and engagement with stakeholders through visualisation.
Over the past two years, several of the UKCRIC facilities have been used to support the government’s response to the COVID pandemic and generate insights into the impact it has had on our lives. The appalling public health and social impacts of the pandemic have also reminded us that although, as engineers, our professional lives are concentrated on improving our understanding of the behaviour of the engineered structures and technologies which make up infrastructure systems, we should recognise that the value delivered through them has overtly civic ends. Improvements to quality of life, accessibility, affordability, social justice, and public health are the impulse for our work.
Now with renewed purpose and commitment, the various UKCRIC facilities are re-engaging with infrastructure owners, operators, consultancies, and regulators to accelerate collaboration and exploit their huge potential. The challenges facing our infrastructure systems and the services they provide are many and often complex. We are, however, in a better position than ever to be able to meet these challenges in a coordinated and collaborative way.
Paul Jeffrey, Professor of Water Management at Cranfield University