SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

Multi-scale infrastructure systems analytics

SPRU is part of a new major research programme that is exploring the future of infrastructures for energy, transport, water and waste in the UK and abroad

The new programme, MISTRAL (Multi-scale InfraSTRucture systems AnaLytics), is funded by the EPSRC. It is led by the University of Oxford, and focuses on engineering, economic and policy challenges facing national and local infrastructures. Prof Jim WatsonDr Katherine Lovell and Dr Ralitsa Hiteva from SPRU are responsible for MISTRAL’s research on policy and governance.

The aim of the MISTRAL is to develop and demonstrate a highly integrated analytics capability to inform strategic infrastructure decision-making across scales, from local to global. MISTRAL was developed together with 57 partners in industry and government to respond to pressing questions on infrastructure planning, resilience, and maintenance. It will also address the impact of investment in infrastructure and investigate its role as an engine for economic growth in the UK and other countries.

National infrastructure provides essential services to a modern economy: energy, transport, digital communications, water supply, flood protection, and waste water / solid waste collection, treatment and disposal. The OECD estimates that globally US$53 trillion of infrastructure investment will be needed by 2030. The UK's National Infrastructure Plan set out over £460 billion of investment in the next decade, but is not yet known what effect that investment will have on the quality and reliability of national infrastructure services, the size of the economy, the resilience of society or its impacts upon the environment.

Such a gap in knowledge exists because of the sheer complexity of infrastructure networks and their interactions with people and the environment. That means that there is too much guesswork, and too many untested assumptions in the planning, appraisal and design of infrastructure, from European energy networks to local drainage systems.

Professor Watson said: ‘Infrastructure sectors such as energy, water and transport face a range of pressing challenges. As well as providing affordable and reliable services, they also need to be environmentally sustainable. Responding to these challenges does not only require upgrades to physical assets and new technologies. It also means that policies and regulations, and the institutions that implement them, need to be fit for purpose’

By developing and demonstrating the next generation of models, methods and tools MISTRAL will inform strategic infrastructure system decision making across scales from local to global. MISTRAL is intended to provide decision makers with insights that hitherto have not been available to inform crucial questions:

  • How will infrastructure systems perform in the context of major future changes like population growth, technological change and climate change?
  • What would be the benefits of investing in new infrastructure capacity or of endeavouring to manage demand for infrastructure services?
  • Where are the most vulnerable points in infrastructure networks?
  • How much is it worth investing to reduce the risk of catastrophic failure?
  • How should infrastructure investment and operation be governed in a more complex world?

MISTRAL will extend analytical capability across different scales of decision-making, thereby also helping to inform decision makers in devolved administrations and local authorities. This includes government departments, regulators, utility companies and their consultants, as well as organisations like: Infrastructure UK, Department for Transport, DECC, the Committee on Climate Change, Ofcom, the Environment Agency, RWE, BP, Shell, National Grid, Network Rail, Thames Water, SITA, CH2M, KPMG, JBA and Volterra, who are all partners in MISTRAL.

The aim is for MISTRAL's capabilities to be used in infrastructure planning, design and analysis around the world. By working in countries like China and the UAE, where huge sums are being invested in infrastructure, the programme will seek to inform infrastructure decisions and demonstrate how infrastructure systems could be steered towards more sustainable outcomes. By working with the UN's infrastructure organisation, UNOPS, it is intended that MISTRAL will help to improve post-disaster and post-conflict infrastructure planning.

Ultimately, consumers of infrastructure services will benefit from infrastructure systems that are more efficient, reliable, resilient and affordable. We will dedicate effort to communicating the benefits of engineering systems research, so that members of the public can engage in on an informed basis in important infrastructure decisions.

The programme and the ITRC’s recently published book The Future of National Infrastructure will be launched at the Institution of Civil Engineers on 23 May.

The UK Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC) is a consortium of seven UK universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Newcastle, Southampton, Leeds, Cardiff, Sussex), led by the University of Oxford. It has developed unique capability in infrastructure systems analysis, modelling and decision making through previous programme. Professor Jim Watson and Dr Ralitsa Hiteva were part of the previous ITRC team that investigated the governance of interactions between infrastructure sectors and infrastructure sectors in transition.


Launch Event