Doing a better job: A systems approach to infrastructure delivery

A major ICE-commissioned review explains how systems thinking can be used to improve the delivery of complex infrastructure projects.

Even relatively small projects are best seen as interventions into existing complex systems.
Even relatively small projects are best seen as interventions into existing complex systems.
The current approach to delivering complex infrastructure projects is facing obsolescence. The sector is struggling to deal with projects that require complex systems to be planned, delivered and, most importantly, integrated to provide the mobility, energy, sanitation and other infrastructure services on which people depend.

In these projects, traditional civil engineering, while still a large capital cost, exists to support a system that is made up of multiple physical, digital and human components. A new tunnel, for example, exists to support a system such as a railway that includes physical trains, stations and track; digital signalling, safety and communications; and human components such as the procedures followed by drivers.

 Ahead of his appearance at the report’s accompanying Strategy Session tomorrow, Andrew McNaughton, steering group chair and former SYSTRA Group Chief Operating Officer, said: “Huge generational challenges, such as Covid-19 and the UK’s commitment to a net-zero carbon economy, are adding further layers of complexity to what we as civil engineers do.  

Watch our ICE video on a systems approach to infrastructure delivery below.

Interconnectivity is influencing infrastructure

The use of technology to maintain and operate infrastructure networks means that interconnectedness has grown substantially in recent decades. Today, even relatively small projects are best seen as interventions into existing complex systems that provide the services needed by millions of people. In the future, the increasingly technology-based functionality of infrastructure systems will mean that a different mix of skills will be needed to execute these interventions. 

Access to infrastructure services has never been more important. Delivering the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, executing the transition to a net zero economy and levelling up economic opportunity between countries and regions are all vital for our future.


This report is a review into the benefits of applying systems thinking to the delivery of complex, major infrastructure projects and brings together a literature review and 30 interviews with project practitioners from the infrastructure, aerospace, defence, oil and gas, and technology sectors. ICE has used this insight to create a Systems Approach to Infrastructure Delivery (SAID), a model that can be used to help deliver better outcomes for infrastructure owners and users.

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