From safe water from our taps, to how we heat and light our homes, to the transport we use to get to work, our infrastructure provides the backbone of modern UK society. For many of us, this is something we take for granted but every so often the system is stressed or disrupted.
What is important for each one of us is the ability for it to recover and bounce back, protecting our homes, daily lives and communities.
As a young professional, what we do now to enable society to have this ability to recover is especially important. The future decades of my career will be spent dealing with the infrastructure network we have inherited. It is us, as the coming generations, that will feel the effects of the systems we put in place now.
As the climate changes and technology develops, our infrastructure is being subjected to conditions that we had never dreamed of at the time they were built. Our networks now need the support to protect them, and the activities we rely on them for, in the decades to come.
Today the National Infrastructure Commission launches its Resilience Study scoping report – but what exactly is resilience?
There are a wide range of definitions of the term resilience, but commonly used words across various definitions include ‘resist’, ‘absorb’, ‘recover’ and ‘adapt’. The report highlights that resilience is not a fixed property: “as external pressures change, the mode of being resilient to them must change too”.
We are used to seeing other parts of the world recover from major events. Hurricanes and storms pass through Latin America, parts of Italy must prepare for the event of earthquakes, and western Canada has a ‘wildfire season’ where they know that they will have to respond to threats.
Although we are fortunate to be out of the path of such major disasters, the UK is facing its own challenges. Just within the last month we have witnessed a number of events that reminded us why this topic is so important, and exactly what we have to risk: Britain’s most severe blackout in more than a decade, which left a million homes without power, disrupted much of the rail network, left an airport in the dark and a hospital temporarily without power.
We saw an entire community evacuated from their homes when a dam threatened to burst after a period of heavy rainfall, while others returned to homes damaged by flooding. We witnessed another bridge collapse due to flash flooding, cutting off a connection (but thankfully with no lives lost).
The Commission’s scoping report will pave the way for the rest of their Resilience Study, examining how best to ensure that our infrastructure systems are fit for managing shocks or disruptions they might face. It pulls together key examples and evidence on how this topic has been approached across different organisations, and collects the expertise of industry professionals and opinions and perceptions of the general public.
As an engineer working in the built environment sector, it is becoming clear that professionals must acknowledge the new complexities and uncertainties introduced into the planning, design and maintenance phases. Not only are our assets sitting in ever changing environmental conditions, but failures even in one single sector are being felt across many different sectors as infrastructure systems become more interdependent.
The lack of a cross sectoral approach to resilience was a key theme in responses to the scoping consultation and a systems-based approach to resilience is the only way to effectively tackle future stresses. We are also increasingly becoming aware of the importance of digital technologies within the resilience landscape. These digital technologies bring risks (such as cyber threats attacking energy or transport infrastructure) but also opportunities for resilience enhancement through making use of data and digital models.
Outside of the professional environment, the Commission has placed a focus on understanding the public’s expectations of infrastructure resilience. As we become more aware of the threats of these shocks and stresses to our infrastructure system, people are increasingly becoming more concerned about what vulnerability that puts them in.
The work to date has placed an importance on understanding concerns. As part of the social research undertaken on this topic, I attended a workshop on water services, targeted at ‘future customers’ (18 to 25-year olds) which provided an interesting insight on what young people believe makes for an acceptable or good service.
Having lived in other parts of the world and being the daughter of a water/wastewater engineer, access to a regulated, a steady supply of safe drinking water is something I do not take for granted; but I do understand how these services can be affected by causes outside of the water system.
However, from the other side of the fence, it is difficult to understand how such services are provided, who regulates them and what prevents immediate recovery after a disruption. It is worth considering that different generations may have different expectations with regards to what makes for adequate service provision, and the change in how people live their lives from one generation to another means that they use (and depend on) infrastructure differently.
So, when a pipe burst the end of their road, when the lights go out or when people are stranded unable get home, the public will ask the simple question: Why? And they will have an expectation of quick recovery and continuity of services, for the simple reason that these basic services are what make our daily lives possible.
Sakthy Selvakumaran is a member of the Commission’s Young Professionals Panel