SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

International Centre for Infrastructure Futures

Compared to many parts of the world the UK has under-invested in its infrastructure in recent decades. It now faces many challenges in upgrading its infrastructure so that it is appropriate for the social, economic and environmental challenges it will face in the remainder of the 21st century.

A key challenge involves taking into account the ways in which infrastructure systems in one sector increasingly rely on other infrastructure systems in other sectors in order to operate. These interdependencies mean failures in one system can cause follow-on failures in other systems. For example, failures in the water system might knock out electricity supplies, which disrupt communications, and therefore transportation, which prevent engineers getting to the original problem in the water infrastructure. These problems now generate major economic and social costs. Unfortunately they are difficult to manage because the UK infrastructure system has historically been built, and is currently operated and managed, around individual infrastructure sectors.

Summary

The International Centre for Infrastructure Futures aims to provide advice on improving decision making and risk management in relation to the design and operation of UK infrastructure developments. There is currently a lack of capability in the UK to procure and deliver the modern infrastructure the UK requires. This constrains innovation and growth and if it could be addressed, it would create significant commercial opportunities for firms. One aim of the research is to improve firms understanding of infrastructure interdependencies and speed up how they develop and test their new business models to exploit them. This learning is difficult because infrastructure innovation is undertaken in complex networks of firms, rather than in an individual firm, and typically has to address a wide range of stakeholders, regulators, customers, users and suppliers.

The International Centre for Infrastructure Futures has been funded by the EPSRC to create a learning environment that allows social scientists, engineers, industrialists, policymakers and other stakeholders to research and learn together and better understand how to exploit the technical and market opportunities that emerge from the increased interdependence of infrastructure systems. The projects at SPRU, undertaken by Professor Paul Nightingale in collaboration with the University of Brighton, Cranfield and UCL, focus on the development and implementation of innovative business models and aims to support UK firms wishing to exploit them in international markets. The research involves a range of research activities on infrastructure interdependencies that is undertaken with users, in order to allow problems to be discovered and addressed earlier and at lower cost.

Because infrastructure innovations alter the social distribution of risks and rewards, the public needs to be involved in decision making to ensure business models and forms of regulation are socially robust. As a consequence, the Centre has a major focus on using its research to catalyse a broader national debate about the future of the UK's infrastructure, and how it might contribute towards a more sustainable, economically vibrant, and fair society.

Methodology

The research is being undertaken using a range of methods, drawing heavily on collaborative co-produced research with users. The project has a large international comparative element and seeks to draw lessons across sectors and international settings. A key part of the SPRU work involves addressing regulation effects drawing on public economics and linking this to the design of effective business models.

Impact and outreach

Beneficiaries from the Centre's activities include existing utility businesses, firms seeking to enter or expand their work in UK and global infrastructure sectors, regulators, governments and, perhaps most importantly, the communities who will benefit from more efficient and less vulnerable infrastructure based services. To encourage engagement with the public the research project is producing outputs designed to inform public debate about key infrastructure issues, such the new runway for London’s airports, High Speed rail links, and infrastructure policies in transport and energy to address future climate change.

Partners and links

This project is an academic collaboration agreement between the 6 universities:

  • University College London
  • Cranfield University 
  • University of Southampton 
  • Bristol University 
  • SPRU, University of Sussex 
  • University of Brighton