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Brunel International Lecture Series: opening lecture, London, September 2022

The 14th Brunel International Lecture Series is examining the regional and global challenges of developing resilient and sustainable infrastructure. It kicked off by highlighting the key issues that the series will address on its journey around the world – and how engineers can tackle them.

The 14th Brunel International Lecture Series, produced by the ICE and the International Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure (ICSI), shines a spotlight on equitable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure challenges around the world and how the engineering community can help to address them.

“Engineering brings the ‘glue factor’,” as Mark Pelling, professor of risk and disaster deduction at University College London (UCL), put it during a panel discussion at the opening lecture, which took place in London on 29 September 2022.

Engineers can turn aspirations into tangible reality, providing a concrete focus around which other knowledge specialisms can converge.

These points were also highlighted by the event’s two keynote speakers – Dr Joshua Macabuag, disaster risk engineering consultant at the World Bank, and Abhilash Panda, head of financing prevention, de-risking investment and infrastructure resilience at the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR).

The opening lecture was hosted by Ed McCann, ICE President 2021-22. Also taking part in the panel discussion – which was chaired by Savina Carluccio, ICSI executive director – was Vicky Hutchinson, practice director at Atkins.

14th Brunel international series, London
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6 principles for resilient infrastructure
  1. Continuously learning – to develop and update understanding and insight into infrastructure resilience

  2. Proactively protected – to plan, design, build and operate infrastructure that is prepared for current and future hazards

  3. Environmentally integrated – to work in a positively integrated way with the natural environment

  4. Socially engaged – to develop active engagement, involvement and participation across all levels of society

  5. Shared responsibility – to share information and expertise for coordinated benefits

  6. Adaptively transforming – to adapt and transform to changing needs

Source: UNDRR

What are the challenges?

There is no doubt that engineers are facing a formidable task. While we are making efforts to decarbonise our world, the impacts of climate change are already upon us, with extreme weather events becoming more prevalent across the globe.

Mitigation and adaptation are both necessary to tackle the climate crisis, although the latter is often overshadowed by the former.

It is crucial to address the impacts that are being felt now, while also needing to build back better and prepare for the future with resilient infrastructure.

Influencing policy and decision-making

One of the first challenges is defining resilience and understanding how critical infrastructure varies in different countries.

Panda outlined the UNDRR’s work with UCL and various governments to develop the six Principles for Resilient Infrastructure, which support implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-30 and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This support is not confined to developing economies, but aims to help all governments and both the public and private sectors to make risk-informed policies and investment decisions that help the most vulnerable people in society.

In particular, the six principles support Sendai Framework Target D – to significantly reduce both disaster damage to critical infrastructure and the disruption of basic services – and SDG 9 – to build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation.

The principles aim to raise awareness of what ‘resilient infrastructure’ constitutes and form the basis for planning and implementing resilient projects. Work is commencing to develop an ISO standard around them.

Results from a survey that was carried out by the ICE and ICSI to feed into the recent UNDRR Sendai Framework mid-term review, show there is work to be done to embed a resilience approach into decision-making.

About 70% of respondents familiar with the framework said they believed the root causes and underlying drivers of disaster risk were better understood now than before 2015.

However, 64% said investments made by the public and private sectors were never, or only sometimes, risk-informed.

One problem is that risk assessments can be expensive, as the risks are constantly changing. The UN is working with governments on an alternative to risk assessments for countries and asset owners – for example, stress-testing of critical infrastructure using scenario design to allow more focus on stresses and bottlenecks.

Dallas Fort Worth airport, one of the largest locations for goods entering and leaving the US, is an early adopter of stress-testing.

Financing resilient infrastructure

A key focus of the UNDRR’s work is understanding how best to unlock funding and financing for sustainable, resilient infrastructure, and getting investment to where it needs to be.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, several governments in Africa and Latin America announced that they would be unable to repay their sovereign debts.

This means they have little chance of raising finance from international bond markets, so other ways of financing infrastructure projects are needed.

The UN is working with countries that need help and is looking at becoming a first-loss guarantor to take some of the risk and encourage institutional investors and the capital markets to invest.

In the financial community, the resilience of assets is being incorporated into due diligence. Resilience in infrastructure is already well understood, because investment is at risk if assets are not resilient to shocks and stresses.

Developing resilient infrastructure that offers economic returns raises the chances of re-investment in riskier, yet potentially higher-impact, projects in more disadvantaged places.

Dallas Fort Worth Airport

Dallas Fort Worth airport is an early adopter of resilience stress testing (credit: iStock/Debra Lawrence)

Sustainable Development Goals:

Linking our work back to the UN SDGs is a core part of the ICE’s plan and mission. This article ties in with the following SDGs:

How are engineers getting involved now?

Influencing early-stage decision-making

Engineers are already involved in developing climate-resilient infrastructure, such as tidal barriers, reservoirs, strategic pipelines and resource options for water companies.

As Hutchinson pointed out, increasingly they are also working closely with environmentalists earlier in the process, allowing them to influence initial decision-making.

This creates a starting point for identifying climate risks and pulling together all of the relevant stakeholders and specialists needed for building resilience.

As the ‘glue factor’, it is right that engineers should be influencing the selection of the right projects at the start of the process.

It is the predominant values in society that should shape the physical reality of the world, through selection of projects and the metrics and values that are embedded into them.

Setting metrics against delivery goals is a way of being transparent about what is being achieved and providing the link between the values used to shape projects and the evaluation of their impact.

The Sendai Framework is an example of this, as is the Global Goal on Adaptation, which was established under the Paris Agreement.

At the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), countries established the two-year Glasgow-Sharm el-Sheikh work programme on the Global Goal on Adaptation. The aim was to enhance and support adaptation action through a country-driven process involving metrics to track progress.

Previously, there has been considerable focus on design and implementation. However, climate change takes us to a place where there is more focus on the vision, values and aims of projects.

Tomorrow’s Cities is an example of an interdisciplinary research hub that is working globally to bring multi-hazard disaster risk management to the heart of urban policy and to reduce such risk for poor people in the cities of the future. Engineers should be a key voice in this visioning space.

As the ‘glue factor’, it is right that engineers should be influencing the selection of the right projects at the start of the process

Capacity building in disaster situations

Joshua Macabuag outlined the critical role that engineers play in building resilience in the context of the disaster management cycle. Again, the opportunity for making an impact is greater the earlier in the process that this role occurs.

In the mitigation and preparation phases, engineers are involved in design to ensure that what is built remains fit for purpose in a disaster scenario, that catastrophe modelling quantitative tools are used for evidence-based decision-making, and that residual risks are quantified and managed.

In the emergency response and recovery phases, engineers are involved in urban search and rescue, as well as in damage assessments to advise people when they are in unsafe situations and when it is safe to reoccupy buildings.

This can involve both on-the-ground and remote assessments that allow decisions to be made more quickly.

Engineers can work as facilitators between local communities, organised groups and government. This also applies in post-disaster situations, as illustrated by the work of the international engineers sent to support their local counterparts after the 2019 Albania earthquake.

The two-way knowledge-sharing about local building stock and experience of earthquakes was invaluable in enabling vast numbers of buildings to be assessed in a way that met the expectations of the community.

Sea Defences

Climate-resilient infrastructure under construction in the UK includes a new sea wall in Dawlish, Devon (credit: iStock/Moorefam)

believe the root causes of disaster risk are better understood now than pre-2015

think public- and private-sector investments were never, or only sometimes, risk-informed

(Source: ICE/ICSI survey of respondents familiar with the UNDRR Sendai Framework)

What changes are needed?

System-level change

Our infrastructure systems are increasingly interconnected, with progress in one area having the potential to create large-scale, system-level change.

On the flip side, failures in some areas could be devastating for their wider systems and service provision. Systemic, multi-hazard risk is a key focus of the Sendai Framework.

Risk quantification is crucial for maximising both the resilience and efficiency of infrastructure systems, but this needs to be carried out holistically.

Progress has been made in the insurance sector, with catastrophe modelling being used to quantify asset risks. Still, quantifying risks across entire portfolios for a country for large-scale decision-making is outside of the traditional engineering remit.

Natural capital accounting and multi-capital approaches offer a framework for thinking about trade-offs in risks and opportunities for nature, people and the economy.

However, there is possibly still a gap in the technologies and modelling for capturing and quantifying such a scale of systems resilience for making robust decisions going forward.

Our infrastructure systems are increasingly interconnected, with progress in one area having the potential to create large-scale system-level change

Equity in decision-making

As Mark Pelling stressed, equity is also important when it comes to making decisions, both in terms of distributive justice (fairness of outcomes) and procedural justice (processes that lead to these outcomes).

All stakeholder views must be accounted for and the views of underrepresented people should also be incorporated when policy is being developed.

One of the Tomorrow’s Cities projects involved work in Nairobi to facilitate a move away from a risk-responsive mode that managed risk through a humanitarian response, towards a disaster risk-reduction mode to plan risk and to support people in need.

However, this may create a situation where risk is merely moved from one place to another, as bringing in infrastructure that makes an area safe and more formal then causes poor people in urban areas to move out.

This issue of transferring risk from one place or group of people to another was also addressed in academic literature on the co-benefits of adaptation for mitigation and social equity that was reviewed as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report.

Scenario modelling

Engineers have always designed infrastructure to deal with extreme events. Existing practice can therefore be adapted to tackle the more frequent, more uncertain and more complicated incidents the world is experiencing.

The profession needs to consider risks and scenario modelling and make changes in terms of how to manage them and the tools for doing so.

Increasingly, adaptation and resilience are being introduced as core components in the engineering undergraduate curriculum, as well as into CPD and learning programmes for professionals.

  • Sarah Hall, ICE climate knowledge manager

About the series

The Brunel opening lecture introduced some of the themes that the series will tackle on its worldwide journey. Comprising a mix of physical and virtual gatherings, the series will comprise nine lectures in total, culminating in a Hong Kong event in July 2024. As the series progresses, it will explore the regional and global challenges and opportunities posed by our changing climate for the engineering community.

  • Africa lecture: 28 November 2022
  • Europe lecture: 20 March 2023
  • South-East Asia lecture: 5 July 2023
  • Americas lecture: 19 September 2023
  • Middle East and North Africa lecture: 13 November 2023
  • Australasia lecture: February 2024
  • South Asia lecture: May 2024
  • Closing lecture in East Asia (Hong Kong): July 2024

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