A built environment fit for the future

19th October 2023

Authors: Goal Advisor, Professor Chimay J Anumba

Professor Chimay Anumba

Goal Advisor, Professor Chimay J Anumba, discusses the growing shift towards creating structures and infrastructure that are not just sustainable, but also resilient and smart.

With the growing understanding of climate change and its impact on the earth and human habitats, there is now a recognition that structures and infrastructure need to be more sustainable (i.e. meet present-day needs without compromising the capacity of future generations to meet their own needs). While most people understand what is meant by ‘structures’, the term ‘infrastructure’ is less well understood. 

This introductory piece adopts the following definition of ‘infrastructure’ from the Online Compact Oxford English Dictionary: “Basic physical and organisational structure needed for the operation of a society or enterprise, or the services and facilities necessary for an economy to function”. From this definition, it is evident that infrastructure is as vital to the functioning of society as the circulatory system is to the human body. This is underscored by the US Department of Homeland Security’s classification of some infrastructure as ‘critical’. Critical infrastructure are the assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof (DHS, 2013).

Global recognition

The importance of sustainable structures and infrastructure (SSI) is now well recognised around the world. The fact that SSI features prominently in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015, is a testament to this. In particular, Goals 9 and 11 include the following language:

  • Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, and foster innovation (SDG #9);
  • Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable (SDG #11).

One of the US National Academy of Engineering (NAE)’s Grand Challenges focuses on: “Restore and Improve Urban Infrastructure”, stating that “good design and advanced materials can improve transportation and energy, water, and waste systems, and also create more sustainable urban environments”. This also makes the case for sustainable structures and infrastructure.

Towards a smart and resilient built environment

Ensuring sustainability in the development of our structures and infrastructure is multi-faceted, as there are so many aspects that need to be considered at various stages of the development cycle – from initial feasibility planning and choice of site to eventual decommissioning or demolition of the structure or infrastructure. Studies need to be undertaken about the potential environmental impacts of the development and what mitigation strategies may need to be put in place. The design, sourcing of materials, construction and maintenance of the structures and infrastructure all need to be thoughtfully considered.

In addition to enhancing the sustainability of structures and infrastructure, there is a growing trend towards ensuring that they are also smart and resilient. Smart structures and infrastructure typically have components that have embedded sensors and/or other technologies that imbue them with the capacity to collect and transmit data, understand their role within a system, and communicate with other subsystems. Resilient structures and infrastructure are those systems that have the capacity to return to their ‘normal’ state (or as near as possible to it) after an adverse external impact (e.g. hurricane, earthquake, flood, fire or other damage). Given the above, many discussions of sustainable structures and infrastructure often include references to smart and/or resilient structures and infrastructure. 

A critical issue in ensuring sustainable, smart and resilient infrastructure systems is understanding the extent to which these systems are interconnected. In emergency situations arising from natural or manmade hazards, the failure of a critical infrastructure (or part thereof) often affects other infrastructure systems and has the capacity to lead to a cascade of failures and/or operational inefficiencies. When these interdependencies are understood, it is possible to anticipate potential failures and make provisions to avoid these or mitigate their impact, build redundancy into the design of these systems, and develop a proactive response and recovery plan.

Further the field

This Emerald Goal on Sustainable Structures and Infrastructure seeks to bring focus to this topic by highlighting publications in various Emerald journals that address an aspect of this. It is also intended to stimulate debate and further work in this field. As such, we welcome contributions from the research and professional communities on this important topic through new articles, blogs and other means.

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