Jim Hall discusses how advanced computing is making it possible to collate infrastructure data from multiple sources, map and model it, and use advanced visualisations to demonstrate and explore scenarios

Gathering data on national infrastructure systems, analysis and scenario planning has historically been cumbersome and required intensive manpower, time and computing systems beyond those held in even research institutions. This meant that planning infrastructure projects in a joined-up way was not possible due to the size of the datasets and number of data providers involved.

The UK Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC) was set up to address that problem. Now in its second phase, ITRC-MISTRAL (Multi-Scale Infrastructure Systems Analytics) is a consortium of seven leading UK universities, led by University of Oxford. It focuses on investigating ways to improve the performance of infrastructure systems in the UK and around the world to help reduce the risk of infrastructure failure and ensure investments are better targeted.

Funded by bodies including the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, it aims to provide data and modelling to help governments, policymakers and other stakeholders in infrastructure make more sustainable and resilient infrastructure decisions.

With vast sums being poured into infrastructure, it’s critical that it is planned and implemented in the most cost efficient way, is future-proofed, and meets the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Substantial investment goes into infrastructure: the UK’s National Infrastructure Plan has set aside over £460 billion for the next decade. This year’s budget1 includes £28.8 billion pledged to a strategic roads investment package, £770m to improve transport infrastructure in cities, and new funding for fibre and 5G investment. Billions more could be spent if disaster struck major infrastructure nodes.

The first National Infrastructure Assessment, published in 2018, which ITRC provided input into, was a great achievement in evidence gathering and analysis. We would like to see the next assessment continue to look towards infrastructure systems that promote and enable a society that is modern, clean, efficient and inclusive. We’d like to see sewerage and waste water treatment being included in the next phase so that it covers all of the economic infrastructure sectors in one analysis, and which pays attention to crucial interdependencies (e.g. between energy and transport). The replacement value of sewers in England and Wales alone is about £180bn.

These dependencies are an area that ITRC provides particular expertise in – what we call a ‘system of systems’ approach to modelling. The processes of digitisation and electrification are leading to increased interdependence between infrastructure networks, whilst resource scarcity in areas such as water and energy are also intensifying interdependencies.

We also need the ability to scenario plan which is flexible enough to take into account new data on growth in population, climate change, or technology developments. For example, future planning could focus more systematically on the benefits of catchment-based approaches to delivering green infrastructure services which will impact on water quality as much as water quantity.

Planning around infrastructure should not be made in isolation but by taking into account other infrastructure in the surrounding area, for example planning a new housing development should involve a holistic look at education and health policies as well as around complementary infrastructure needs such as transport, workplaces, digital communications, water, electricity and sewerage.

ITRC has developed a unique and powerful set of computer tools, NISMOD (National Infrastructure Systems MODel), to bring infrastructure planning and modelling into new realms. An additional ITRC work programme focuses on Multi-Scale Infrastructure Systems Analytics (MISTRAL), working to develop an integrated analytics capability to inform infrastructure decision-making from local to global scale.

Projects and collaborators
ITRC is already working with UK government, private sector, and overseas governments on projects including providing the analytical framework for the assessments carried out by the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission for the UK’s National Grid, HS2, Department for Transport, Defra, JBA on the risk of bridge scouring and floods, Caribbean Islands’ infrastructure needs with the UN, and Tanzania’s transport links with the World Bank.

ITRC works closely with DAFNI, the Data & Analytics Facility for National Infrastructure to advance UK infrastructure research.

DAFNI is funded by an £8 million investment from the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC), based Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Harwell, Oxfordshire and managed by the Scientific Computing Department (SCD) of the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Currently DAFNI provides a managed service for the UK research community to help them develop models to run on its secure computational resources and to work with DAFNI’s world-leading infrastructure data science. Longer term it will be available to academics and industry to use directly, transforming processes which might currently take two days of dedicated computer- and man-power into a fraction of day using DAFNI’s processing power and modelling.

Together with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), ITRC recently launched a new tool, SustainABLE, providing development practitioners with an online tool resulting in practical actions to ensure that their infrastructure project supports achievement of the different targets of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015 and agreed by 193 countries.

https://sustainable.unops.org/ is available for use now and the first module walks users through mapping the gender-related SDG targets of women’s empowerment and infrastructure against areas including energy, transport, water, solid waste, ICT, health, education, government and housing. Specific subsectors can also be targeted such as air transport, surface water management, or emergency response.

This system-of-systems approach which runs through ITRC’s research allows it to explore a multitude of visualisation methods and technologies across sectors rather than being restricted to single sectors. Six different sector models are already in the database: transport, energy demand, energy supply, water supply, waste water, and solid waste.

These developments will allow planners to gain views into scenarios and to fully test changes at modelling stage, rather than implement projects and then have to make costly retrospective changes. It will also allow policymakers to create macro-economic cases for infrastructure, which we have not previously had the data or computing power to generate.

By 2020, the ITRC national infrastructure portal will be open to academia and industry as well as policymakers, providing access to infrastructure datasets, simulation and modelling results.

1 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/budget-2018-documents

Jim Hall is Director of the UK Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC) and Professor of Climate and Environmental Risks at the University of Oxford. The UK ITRC is a consortium of seven leading UK universities. It investigates ways to improve the performance of infrastructure systems in the UK and around the world to help reduce the risk of infrastructure failure and ensure investments are better targeted.
For more information, please see: www.itrc.org.uk

The Data & Analytics Facility for National Infrastructure (DAFNI) is a state-of-the-art capability to provide the UK’s next generation platform to support the development of essential infrastructure services, revolutionising the UK’s ability to adapt to a changing climate and technological landscape.
For more information, please see: www.dafni.ac.uk