THE ITRC STORY
CONCEPTION OF THE ITRC
The Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium was created by a group of UK academics who recognised the crucial role that infrastructure has in setting societies’ development pathways. Analysing and planning infrastructure requires a systems approach that recognises the interdependencies between infrastructure sectors (energy, transport, digital communications, water and waste) and between physical, cyber, human and environmental systems. Our consortium was created to provide expertise in the five infrastructure sectors that we were seeking to integrate, and also in economics, environmental extremes and complex systems.
THE SYSTEMS-OF-SYSTEMS APPROACH
The academics that created the ITRC met in Cambridge in March 2009 to invent the systems-of-systems concepts that would form the original Programme Grant proposal that was submitted to EPSRC. In June 2009 the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology published a report called A National Infrastructure for the 21st Century, which argued for a systems approach to national infrastructure and made the case for modelling and simulation to support infrastructure planning. In many ways, ITRC responded to that call from the Council for Science and Technology.
Whilst developing the original ITRC Programme Grant proposal we held discussions with more than forty partners in industry, government and professional institutions who joined us on the journey to develop a new system-of-systems approach to modelling and managing national infrastructure. We created an international advisory board combining leading infrastructure practitioners from the UK together with academics from around the world. Professor Tim Broyd was the first chair of the board, who was succeeded by Colin Harris. The aim of ITRC was to develop and demonstrate a new generation of simulation models and tools to inform the analysis, planning and design of national infrastructure. Our ambition was to enable a revolution in the strategic analysis of national infrastructure provision in the UK, whilst at the same time becoming an international landmark programme recognised for novelty, research excellence and impact. The application to EPSRC was successful and the ITRC was awarded £4.7million for a five-year research programme.
FAST TRACK ANALYSIS
Having learnt from previous experience of integrated modelling projects, we committed to a Fast Track analysis in the first year of the project. This was a ‘first pass’ through the problem of estimating infrastructure capacity and demands in the future, including the cross-sectoral dependencies between infrastructure sectors. The Fast Track analysis did not involve any new model development but it was crucial in developing shared conceptual understanding and an early deliverable at the end of the first year of the programme. After a year of intensive work, the Fast Track Analysis was launched at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
When the ITRC was first conceived there was no single natural ‘client’ for systems-of-systems analysis. Like in most countries, infrastructure was managed in silos of different government ministries, regulators and utilities. That all began to change in 2010 when Infrastructure UK was created in HM Treasury, under the leadership of James Stewart who became a long-standing friend of ITRC. When Infrastructure UK began to ask questions about infrastructure resilience and long-term planning, ITRC was able to help with the Fast Track analysis and early versions of NISMO. ITRC analysed the first National Infrastructure Plan and Infrastructure UK’s Infrastructure Pipeline.
NATIONAL INFRASTRUCTURE MODELLING
In the ITRC research proposal we had planned to couple existing national infrastructure models to create the system-of-systems analysis. In some cases that proved to be feasible e.g. Cardiff University’s CGEN model of the electricity and gas systems. In others, like road and rail transport, it became clear that existing models were not capable of doing large numbers of simulations and scenario analyses, so we embarked upon creating new intermediate complexity models. As the ITRC programme proceeded these models were integrated with a shared software framework and underpinning database (NISMOD-DB), which enabled us to deliver, by the end of the first programme, a fully integrated national infrastructure assessment, which was reported in our book The Future of National Infrastructure: A System-of-Systems Approach.
ITRC also developed a high-resolution model of Britain’s interdependent infrastructure networks for analysis of infrastructure risk and vulnerability: NISMOD-RV. During the research programme Britain was hit be exceptional floods in the winters of 2013/14. In February 2014 a section of the mainline railway to the southwest collapsed into the sea at Dawlish. By this time NISMOD-RV was up and running, so we could use the model to analyse vulnerabilities in the transport network for the Department of Transport.
In 2015 Jim Hall, the Director of ITRC, was contacted out of the blue by Nick O’Regan from the UN Office for Project Services. UNOPS has the has the UN mandate to provide infrastructure in post-conflict and post-disaster situations, fragile states and particularly vulnerable locations like small island developing states. Nick had spotted that ITRC’s work and could see how the system-of-systems methodology could help UNOPs to achieve its new overarching strategy to proactively engage with infrastructure planning and ‘build back better’. The timing was good, as it meant that in the ITRC’s application for another five years of funding we could include research to address the needs of developing countries which had been expressed to us by UNOPS, the World Bank and the UK Department for International Development.
The application for the second phase of ITRC funding was in many ways even more ambitious than the first. The Multi-Scale Infrastructure Systems Analytics (MISTRAL) programme proposed to extend NISMOD from being a national scale model of Britain in a variety of different directions:
- Downscale: from ITRC’s pioneering representation of national networks to the UK’s 25.7 million households and 5.2 million businesses, representing the infrastructure services they demand and the multi-scale networks through which these services are delivered.
- Upscale: from the national perspective to incorporate global interconnections via telecommunications, transport and energy networks.
- Across-scale: to other national settings outside the UK, where infrastructure needs are greatest and where systems analysis represents a business opportunity for UK engineering firms.
The MISTRAL programme was awarded a grant of £5.4million from EPSRC and began in 2016, with the support of 53 partners in government and industry. Oversight was provided by an international academic advisory board chaired by Prof Margot Weijnen from the Technical University of Delft and a Client Group chaired by Graham Dalton. The consortium immediately began working on a new version of NISMOD-LP, which could enable analysis at high spatial resolutions. This entailed building an entirely new transport model with an explicit representation of the nation’s road and rail networks and a new high-resolution model of fixed and mobile telecommunications networks. The CGEN model was transformed into GCEN+ which represented local renewable energy networks, heat networks and hydrogen as an ‘energy hub’. Thanks to a successful collaboration with Water UK, the Environment Agency and water companies in England and Wales, the first national-scale water supply infrastructure simulation model was created. The water model was coupled with the energy model to analyse drought risks to power plants and the impacts on energy markets.
Developments in NISMOD-LP also informed progressive upgrades to the risk model, NISMOD-RV, so that it fully integrated interdependencies and cascading failure between electricity, road, rail, water and digital communications infrastructures. When the National Infrastructure Commission (the successor to Infrastructure UK) was asked by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to investigate the resilience of Britain’s infrastructure, NISMOD-RV was the obvious tool for them to us. The analysis is described in the supporting evidence for the NIC’s report Anticipate, React, Recover: Resilient Infrastructure Systems.
International interest in and application of the ITRC’s work took off in the second phase of the research programme. The collaboration with UNOPS first focussed on a Fast Track analysis of infrastructure systems in the occupied Palestinian territories, though the deteriorating security situation meant that the impact was limited. The team has much more success with applications with the Governments of Curacao and St Lucia, where customised versions of NISMOD were developed to inform national infrastructure assessments which have informed government policy, investment decisions and adaptation planning. Studies using NISMOD-RV in Tanzania, Vietnam and Argentina quantified the resilience of multi-model transport networks, the economic risks of supply chain disruption and the benefits of investment in resilience. The DPhil of Dr Xi Hu analysed a remarkable infrastructure dataset in China. And ITRC has pushed the frontier of global-scale infrastructure assessment, conducting the first global analysis of natural hazard risk to road and rail infrastructure using more than 60million km of data from OpenStreetMap.
THE OXFORD-CAMBRIDGE ARC, DAFNI AND BEYOND
The new capabilities of NISMOD to analyse infrastructure at sub-national scales have been demonstrated for the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, which has been targeted for infrastructure development and creation of advanced industries. NISMOD has been used to analyse alternative scenarios of development for the Arc and has been used to analyse decarbonisation pathways for the regional transport strategy. NISMOD provides a shared platform that can be used by the many stakeholders in the Arc to map out alternative spatial development strategies that meet the goals of sustainable economic development.
In 2017, as part of a series of large capital grants to UKCRIC, EPSRC awarded £8million to create DAFNI, the Data and Analytics Facility for National Infrastructure. DAFNI comprises of almost £2million of computer hardware, mostly at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Harwell alongside other high-performance computing facilities, but most of the DAFNI investment has gone into creating a customised national infrastructure modelling and simulation platform, coupled with a national infrastructure database, advanced visualisation facilities, a cloud service and a security service. DAFNI therefore provides a secure home of the UK’s infrastructure data and systems modelling. Migration of the entire NISMOD suite to DAFNI was completed in 2020. Thus, as the second phase of ITRC draws to a close, there is a lasting legacy of system-of-systems modelling capabilities that are being ever-more actively taken up and applied in the UK and around the world.