A framework for more resilient infrastructure

The National Infrastructure Commission have released their report on resilient infrastructure systems, Anticipate, React, Recover. We examine its key recommendations and what needs to happen next.

NIC have published a report into resilient infrastructure systems. (Image ©NIC)
NIC have published a report into resilient infrastructure systems. (Image ©NIC)
  • Updated: 01 June, 2020
  • Author: Ben Goodwin, ICE Lead Policy Manager

Living through the Covid-19 pandemic is proving the need for resilient infrastructure. This has been the case particularly for the telecoms and broadband networks that have experienced significant alterations in demand as many people have setup work from home.

It is timely then, that the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) have published a report into resilient infrastructure systems – Anticipate, React, Recover.

Whilst the NIC’s study was conducted before the pandemic started, the UK’s resilience challenges will only grow with time as climate change, population growth and other major demographic shifts impact the types of infrastructure networks that the UK requires.

A framework for resilience

The NIC’s recommendations revolve around a framework for resilience.

The NIC say that this framework should seek to better anticipate future shocks, by facing up to uncomfortable truths, testing and addressing vulnerabilities, properly valuing resilience and driving adaptation before it is needed.

To achieve this, the NIC argue that:

  • The Government should publish a full set of resilience standards twice a decade.
  • Stress tests, based on those used in finance, should be held regularly, overseen by regulators to ensure infrastructure systems and services can meet those standards.
  • Operators should develop and maintain long-term strategies for resilience, with price reviews which consider the cost of meeting resilience standards in future.

The NIC have set out a timeframe, with milestones, for achieving this by 2024. The NIC believe most of the foundations are already in place, yet this represents an ambitious target which will require industry to respond and adapt positively.

ICE provided evidence to the NIC, and we recognise that resilience should be more of a priority right across the infrastructure sector. The NIC believe an expanded role for regulators and clear standards for resilience set by Government will enable this.

We argue that this must go further, it is increasingly important to ensure that the definitions and language used around resilience are consistent and commonly used to simplify cross-sector understanding and co-operation.

There is also a pressing need to tackle a silo culture. The sector needs to better communicate, collaborate and understand the importance of ensuring assets and services are resistant to shocks.

The NIC’s framework model is a welcome step to achieving this, especially in ensuring a role for the UK Regulators Network in promoting the sharing of best practice between sectors.

Accounting for interdependencies

Infrastructure operators also need to better understand the other networks and systems that they are dependent on, and interdependent with. Increasingly a failure in one sector will impact another. For example, if the electric grid goes down because of flooding, other flood defences relying on pumps may fail, trains might become stranded, and telecoms services could become unavailable.

The NIC have set out that individual operators must develop long-term resilience strategies which take these interdependencies into account. Clear and consistent standards, alongside regular stress tests will no doubt support this, however, the importance of resilience must be more deeply embedded in processes used by planning, advisory and decision-making bodies.

ICE set out in our last State of the Nation report that subnational infrastructure bodies should be set up which work across infrastructure and other economic sectors. These could take a lead in fostering a systems thinking approach to resilience.

Taking this approach will help infrastructure operators to better understand what could impact their services and how to mitigate against those shocks.

Arup’s innovative systems study published alongside the NIC’s study is welcome in this context as a first attempt at trying to map the complicated patterns which interweave our infrastructure networks together.

Improving the UK’s infrastructure resilience will be an ongoing process. ICE have launched a consultation on the impact of Covid-19 on the future of infrastructure delivery in the UK.

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