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A systems approach is critical to managing the linkages and interdependencies between infrastructure sectors including transport, energy, telecommunications and water.
Devolution provides a timely opportunity to strengthen our collaborative approach to systems management, focused on the benefits to the users of our infrastructure.
Systems approaches should be central to regional infrastructure strategies to ensure infrastructure networks are integrated and resilient. Extreme flooding events consistently cause the knock-on failure of infrastructure assets: roads, railways through to electricity and water supply. For example, the floods in 2015-16 caused multiple road closures in the North of England and Northern Ireland, with the West Coast Mainline and Trans-Pennine services also suspended. Two years previously, the winter floods of 2013-14 caused the loss of electricity to over 100,000 homes and the closure of railways in Devon and Somerset.
These extreme weather events highlight the interdependencies in infrastructure as they are liable to lead to cascade failure where the failure of one aspect of infrastructure, such as flood defences, can lead to other failures, e.g. flooded power stations leading to power cuts, which affect telecommunications networks.
The interdependencies in infrastructure need to be managed well, especially as it is becoming more interconnected. For example, the smart grid will mean energy systems rely more on ICT, and the electrification of transport systems will mean transport is more reliant on the grid: resilience is required in all sectors to protect against cascade failure.
Resilience – the response to both mitigation and future prevention - is more practical at the local-regional level and can be more effectively realised through devolution. However, for resilience planning to succeed it will also be critical to develop an understanding of the interdependencies of infrastructure systems between new economic geographies.
Managing regional infrastructure as a system requires effective collaboration, planning and sharing of information to provide a systems resilience as well as individual sector resilience. The devolution opportunity must be taken to encourage collaboration through shared regional infrastructure strategies and investment pipelines, connected financial opportunities and an integrated approach to the skills challenge to overcome boundaries between infrastructure operators and build a picture of the state of the entire infrastructure system.
It is important combined authorities and sub-national transport bodies seek to work with private utilities, communications and other data owning companies in order to develop an appropriate marketplace for the access to and most effective, shareable use of data.
The infrastructure system fundamentally requires joined up management, long-term planning, and a regulatory and policy framework which provides certainty for investors through devolved regional strategies.
A systems approach is already being taken in Scotland where there is a resilience advisory board composed of both emergency service representatives and key infrastructure sector stakeholders that advise Scottish government and provides an excellent starting point.
In this year’s State of the Nation report we review the risks and opportunities for infrastructure in an age of devolution to nations, cities and regions.
Explore the findings in State of the Nation: Devolution 2016.
Andy Warrington, CEng MICE is associate director transportation at Atkins and member of the ICE Transport Expert Panel and State of the Nation steering group.