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The University of Southampton

Delivering an infrastructure for the 21st Century

Published: 27 October 2010

UK infrastructure is acutely vulnerable to changes in the weather and other threats because of the interdependence of our five key networks - energy, transport, telecommunications, water and waste.

At the same time, an efficient and reliable infrastructure is essential to the growth and competitiveness of the UK economy and to quality of life and the environment.

Now a world-leading team of engineers and scientists has been pulled together to analyze the risks in the face of an uncertain future and suggest ways in which we can protect our infrastructure against potential meltdown.

Drawn from seven of the UK's top universities, including Southampton, the team will be analyzing how this can be done at the same time as meeting ambitious targets for carbon emissions reduction from energy, transport and other infrastructures.

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the £6.1million programme aims to address the fundamental issue of ensuring a sustainable infrastructure for the UK.

The University of Southampton will provide a wide range of expertise across the project including climate change (Professor Robert Nicholls), complexity science (Dr Seth Bullock), solid waste (Professor William Powrie FREng) and transport (Professor John Preston).

Professor Powrie says: "The University of Southampton is delighted to have a major involvement in this important and far-reaching programme. It is a way of accelerating the impact of our world-leading research in the areas of climate change, complexity science, transport and waste management in recent years to address perhaps the greatest challenge facing civilisation today."

Professor Jim Hall FREng, programme lead and Director of the Centre for Earth Systems Engineering Research in Newcastle University, said it was crucial "to think ahead about the situations we might end up regretting in the future".

"The whole process of strategic planning is fraught with uncertainties," he explains.

"What we can't do is plan for one unique predicted future because if we do that we risk getting things seriously wrong. Instead, we will be developing computer simulation models that will enable complex national infrastructure systems to be tested for a wide range of possible future scenarios.

"Testing infrastructure systems in a virtual environment will help to realistically plan for a range of possible futures so we are not suddenly caught unawares and in a situation where it is already too late to react. Our aim is to show that by taking a 'system of systems' approach - that is, to look at the interaction of all our key networks - we can achieve a sustainable outcome."

An estimated £150 billion has been invested in the UK's infrastructure over the last five years and experts predict a further £40-50 billion will be needed every year between now and 2030 in order to maintain current levels of service.

Privatisation of key services such as water and energy, new expectations that many decisions are to be taken locally and the fact that information and communications technologies are now integrated into every one of these key networks means the whole system is vulnerable.

Understanding that vulnerability will be key, explains Professor Hall. Using powerful new technology developed by the researchers, the team will explore huge volumes of data to analyse the full range of possible future scenarios.

This will include the IPCC data on future climate change and the potential risks associated with flooding and other severe weather scenarios.

Models of the UK's five key infrastructures will be put together by world experts in each of those systems, but for the first time these different network simulations will interact with one another.

The team will also analyse the entire census dataset to predict what households will be doing in the future and how this might impact on demand for infrastructure. Regional data on economic activity will be used to understand the benefits that infrastructure yields to the economy.

It is the first time a project of this scale has been undertaken and the team hope it will become a vital tool to inform and assist the development of sustainable infrastructure systems across the globe.

The project is backed by an extra £1.6million of funding from industry. Many of the UK industries involved are hoping that the research will help to make their global businesses more competitive as well as making the services they provide to the UK economy and society more efficient.

Notes for editors

  • The research is being funded through a programme grant of £4.5m from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and an additional £1.6m from the project partners.

  • Led by Newcastle University, the programme also brings together scientists and engineers from the universities of Southampton, Cambridge, Cardiff, Leeds, Oxford and Sussex.

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