Adaptive Planning in National Infrastructure

Adaptive Planning in National Infrastructure

SAMI have long advocated the development of Adaptive Plans as a means of developing “robust decisions in uncertain times”. The concept is explained in a blogpost from January 2023 – Adaptive Plans – a dynamic approach to putting scenarios into action.

Now, the National Infrastructure Commission in its Second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA2) has also lighted upon the idea:

Adaptive planning: There is inevitable uncertainty associated with long term infrastructure policy making. Decision makers must not be continually buffeted by this uncertainty, nor ignore it. In this Assessment, the Commission sets out a portfolio of policies that use adaptive pathways to effectively navigate uncertainty.”

The NIC addresses six areas of infrastructure:

Digital Energy Flood risk
Transport Waste Water and wastewater

NIA2 aims to produce a thirty year plan for a low carbon and resilient economy that supports economic growth and protects the natural environment.

In practice, NIA2 approaches adaptive planning through the wider context of “resilience”. They are particularly concerned about the resilience of infrastructure under pressures from the energy price shocks and climate change (including loss of biodiversity and invasive species).

Their approach to resilience is structured around 6 concepts: anticipate, adapt, resist, absorb, recover and transform. SAMI itself produced a Working Paper on resilience a little while back which also addressed several different components: – WP21-10-TO-RESILIENCE-AND-BEYOND.pdf.

Anticipate future risks: by collecting data on data on how assets will react to acute and chronic risks.

Adapt: “Organisations should develop adaptive pathways to adjust systems over time as the trajectory of future climate change becomes clearer.” The report gives the example of The Thames Estuary 2100 strategy that considers the strategy in light of data about changing flood risk and how flood risk assets are performing over time.

Resist:  Networks should adopt a systems approach to resisting shocks, identifying points of vulnerability and consequential effects and changing standards accordingly

Absorb: “Operators should understand how far systems can absorb shocks while maintaining services. This includes understanding interdependencies. Sometimes this may be a better strategy than just resisting a climate threat.” The example they give is raising electricity circuits and installing tiled flooring where flood risk remains high despite new prevention activity.

Recover:  this includes insurance (increasingly challenging in repeated flood areas) and community support.

Transform: re-design systems with latest capabilities and approaches as resilience is built in.

Whilst the Assessment  comprehensively addresses the impacts of climate change on infrastructure and moves to Net Zero which is laudable, it ignores other STEEP issues. Even under climate change it doesn’t give much attention to re-structuring the National Grid or changing attitudes to travel.

Infrastructure needs to be resilient to change whatever its origin.  For example, nothing is said about changing attitudes to public ownership of infrastructure – power, water, rail in particular.

Looking at the infrastructure challenge of our times – HS2 – it is clear that its problems do not primarily arise from climate change. All infrastructure decisions are vulnerable to changing ECONOMIC circumstances.  The HS2 Business Case will have been put together in an era of low interest rates and low inflation, so will be very different today. That said, with all its sunk costs, the equation might still stand up if we are looking at incremental benefits (virtually all of them) against incremental costs (perhaps half).

Any Business Case revision should also have factored in SOCIAL change – after the pandemic there is lower demand for rail travel; and TECHNOLOGY change– Zoom and working from anywhere reduce value of business time savings. There is also the POLITICAL dimension  – levelling up – to factor in.

We should also look at issues of implementation. SOCIAL factors necessitated higher building costs through tunnels; POLITICAL factors drove the need for access to Euston, despite the challenges of working in an already congested underground environment.

There will have been SOCIAL and POLITICAL factors underlying the original Business Case itself. Initial estimates often tend to be over-optimistic in order to support prior political decisions. Trade-offs between different communities are often ignored. Way back in 1976, George Stern coined the term SOSIPing or Sophistical Obfuscation of Self-Interest and Prejudice –  a devasting critique of cost-benefit analysis. The infrastructure he was considering was a Third London Airport, where saving a few minutes of multinational businessmen’s time (usually men back in 1976) was a given a very high value, whilst inconvenience to the local community and the destruction of natural resources were rated lowly.

NIA2 also doesn’t pay much attention to the opportunities of change – over the lifetime of the infrastructure we will have seen/will see huge TECHNOLOGY changes. There is a nod to them under “Transform” but little suggestion that seeking technological opportunities should be an active process.

I would also have liked to have seen more on the practice of foresight itself – horizon scanning and monitoring, scenario analysis, contingency planning (all essential elements of SAMI’s Adaptive Plan approach). It is touched on under “Anticipate” but not given the prominence it deserves.

Despite the above critique, NIA2 does a fine job of identifying many of the consequences of climate change for the 6 infrastructure areas and is prepared to make radical and unpopular recommendations, for example of prioritising public transport over cars in cities.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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