Identifying risk and building resilience in complex infrastructure systems

Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute has developed new modelling tools to help decision makers identify risks from climate-related infrastructure failure and build long-term resilience.

speaker at conferenceIdentifying risk and building resilience in complex infrastructure systems.
Dr Raghav Pant was ‘Highly Commended’ in the Early Career category of the Vice Chancellor’s Innovation Awards 2020

The vital services we rely on in our globalised world – such as energy, transport, water, and waste – are increasingly interdependent. When infrastructure fails due to climate events, the consequences reach far beyond the individual sector to impact wider society, economy, and the environment.

But whilst policy makers are aware of such interconnection, they often lack information about how systems connect, where the greatest vulnerabilities are, and crucially how to allocate scarce resources to build resilience across sectors.

Over the last nine years, research teams at the Environmental Change Institute have worked to create tools and methodologies to map infrastructure system interconnections and help decision makers manage the risk of failure. These approaches have been used in the UK by Infrastructure UK, National Infrastructure Commission, Department for Transport, Environmental Agency, High Speed 2 and many others.

  • Mapping of ‘critical hotspots’ for Infrastructure UK revealed the places where infrastructure systems are most vulnerable and was critical in moving the organisation from siloed policy making to a multi-sectoral approach.
  • The methodology enabled High Speed 2 to map interdependencies with existing electricity, telecoms, water, roads, and railway networks and anticipate future climate risks. This was instrumental in building sustainable management of interdependencies into the project design process.
  • The National Infrastructure Commission’s policy report (2020), used evidence from the team’s work to pilot an approach to ‘system-of-systems’ modelling using network analysis and system simulation to understand the impact of network interconnections.

The approach has also been adopted internationally with similar modelling used in New Zealand and China. Research on transport networks in Tanzania, Vietnam and Argentina, funded by the World Bank and multi-donor organisations including the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO, formerly DfID), created policy reports and new tools to help governments quantify risks to multi-modal transport systems, prioritise investment to enhance climate resilience, and estimate the scales of National Determined Contributions towards climate adaptation, which are vital to achieving the Paris Climate Agreement targets.

Senior Research Associate, Dr Raghav Pant who leads the Infrastructure Transition Research Consortium’s risk research team comments: ‘In theory, infrastructure interconnection and the impact of individual failure on wider systems, have long been emphasised as part of policy making. In practice, there have been large gaps in analysis and little understanding of ‘cascading failures’ as one system failure goes on to impact others. Our research bridged this gap by combining real infrastructure data with academic network theory, which had previously been thought of as too complex or abstract for practitioners, to provide robust tools for decision makers.’

This approach has had a rapid uptake and continues to be in demand in the UK and internationally in South East Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Underlying research on systems thinking, interdependent infrastructure hotspot analysis, and flood risk and adaptation have been published in high profile journals and continue to be very well cited in academic literature.

‘All our complex infrastructure systems are at risk from climate events such as flooding, drought, landslides and other shocks. Recognising which systems are vulnerable, and managing the risk to prevent failure, are vital to protect lives, livelihoods, economic activities, and the environment. The Environmental Change Institute is pleased to be working with others to translate our academic research into practical approaches which can help decision makers manage this process – and we’re delighted to see the tools now being used in such a wide variety of contexts.’

Dr Raghav Pant is a Senior Research Associate at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

Research has been conducted and coordinated through the Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC) and Multi-Scale Infrastructure Systems Analytics (MISTRAL), led by Professor Jim Hall, former ECI Director and current Professor of Climate and Environmental Risks and Director of Research in the School of Geography and Environment.

Funders: The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, National Infrastructure Commission, World Bank, FCDO