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6 principles to help engineers create resilient infrastructure

Date
07 April 2022

David A. Smith explains what the principles are, their objectives, the action required, and their implications for the industry and the planet.

6 principles to help engineers create resilient infrastructure
Engineers must ensure that what we build can withstand the stresses that are coming our way. Image credit: Mo I/Pexels

Last year, the highly respected Climate Change Committee warned the UK government that despite global efforts and commitments, further warming of the planet was ‘inevitable’.

With that in mind, the ICE’s resilient infrastructure community is focused on ensuring engineering interventions not only tackle immediate needs, but also reduce further climate change and mitigate its effects.

Earlier this year, the institution collaborated with the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) and University College London to host an important meeting for this mission.

We convened an expert group for an online discussion on the UNDRR’s freshly drafted principles for resilient infrastructure.

Abhilash Panda, deputy chief of intergovernmental processes, interagency cooperation, and partnerships at the UNDRR, and now member of the ICE resilience community, explained that in the fast-changing climate we live in, infrastructure must be able to absorb, react, recover and transform in the event of an emergency.

The principles’ objectives

The global organisation has developed its principles to build awareness of the need for resilience, form a basis for planning and delivering the right kind of projects, and boost policy and investment in this area.

It also set out an ambition that all infrastructure interventions should work towards the concept of ‘net resilience gain’, since resilience is a critical pillar to support the more commonly cited net zero carbon target.

This means that all projects we undertake as engineers must enhance the resilience of infrastructure and the ability of the broader built environment to cope with rising temperatures.

The six principles are:

1. Resilient infrastructure must be able to adaptively transform

The first principle of a resilient asset is that it’s adaptively transforming, essentially meaning it must be able to overcome unexpected events and grow into unforeseen roles.

Actions listed under this principle include designing infrastructure that can:

  • Fail safely,
  • adapt beyond its primary purpose,
  • operate according to unforeseen human intervention, and
  • handle the variability of a changing environment.

2. Resilient infrastructure must be environmentally integrated

The second principle dictates infrastructure must be environmentally integrated to qualify as resilient.

This recognises the importance of the natural environment and cautions against any move towards mitigating climate change that itself causes further damage.

Actions here include the use of nature-based solutions, integration of ecosystem data into decision making, and actively maintaining the immediate environment around a project.

3. Resilient infrastructure must be protected by design

The third principle is protection by design, which requires active up-front consideration of the hazards that could face an asset once delivered.

To do this, the UNDRR warns project teams to be pessimistic and consider the possibility of not just natural disasters, but pandemics, terrorism, cyber-attacks, and other challenges.

Critical components should exceed basic requirements, and the inter-connectivity of different infrastructure channels should be carefully considered to slash the risk of cascading failure.

Emergency management plans should be drawn up in advance.

4. Resilient infrastructure must be conducive to social engagement

The fourth principle is social engagement. Resilient infrastructure must boost people’s awareness of how best to use it considering present and future challenges.

This relies on clear communication between asset managers and users about upcoming disruption, to give an example.

Similarly, by giving communities a sense of ownership of an item of infrastructure, we can reduce vandalism that might take it out of service at a critical time.

5. Resilient infrastructure must be a shared responsibility

The fifth principle outlines the concept of collaborative data and knowledge sharing regarding an asset.

This enables the development of the best hazard-response possible.

Following common standard is a key action here, along with cultivating collaborative management.

Generating a shared understanding of resilience goals among different stakeholders is also important, as is assuring data safety, and sharing information relating to risk and return.

6. Resilient infrastructure will require continuous learning

The sixth and final principle set out by the UNDRR is continuous learning.

This means decision makers regularly devising strategies to optimise the ability of infrastructure to cope with what’s ahead.

To comply with this, infrastructure planners, policy makers and scenario analysts should expose assumptions about infrastructure systems and validate them through scenario analysis.

Performance of an asset should be monitored in real time and regular stress testing should be common practice.

A shift in thinking

There can be a tendency to think we have enough on our plate trying to decarbonise without worrying about resilience – or to feel that factoring in climate change means admitting defeat against it – but we must not fall into these traps.

It’s fundamental to our roles as engineers that we think broadly and understand the long-term impact of our work on the community.

This means ensuring that what we build can withstand the stresses that are coming its way, as well as doing all we can to minimise those shocks.

Our job is changing and growing so it is an exciting place to be.

Forming a global standard

The UNDRR’s six principles were put out to over 100 governments from around the world at the end of March and are in the process of being agreed as a clear global definition of resilient infrastructure.

The UNDRR then hopes that in time the principles will guide formation of a global standard in delivering resilient infrastructure, allowing people at all levels of influence to work in line with this shared goal.

Beyond that, there’s ambition to create a rating system that enables key parties to see the extent to which any asset conforms with the agreed principles of resilience.

This could hugely help drive the agenda forward by communicating in clear terms with investors and policy makers about the way in which infrastructure would perform in the event of greater climate change.

The role of engineers

These six principles form an incredibly useful framework for us as engineers to evaluate our work and try to make sure we are creating infrastructure that will not only reduce man’s impact on the environment but help us to cope with the climate changes we know are coming.

Although there is a critical role for policy makers, investors, and clients, we, as engineers, can drive this agenda. If we can create exemplar projects in line with the UNDRR’s principles, we can show the world just what can be achieved.

Learn more

If you’re keen to learn more, Abhilash Panda is among the speakers at a webinar being hosted by ICE President Ed McCann later this month.

The ICE Strategy Session: Improving global resilience in infrastructure will explore how civil engineers can help shape a built environment fit for a challenging future.

Register for the event

  • David A. Smith, senior vice president and director of strategy at Stantec