Creating a better world for future generations
19th October 2023
Author: Dr Alexander Hay, Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Resilience of Critical Infrastructure, University of Toronto, Canada
As the world faces the threat of climate change and rising uncertainty, Dr Alexander Hay, Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Resilience of Critical Infrastructure, University of Toronto, Canada, explores the key role that infrastructure engineers play in shaping a world that is more resilient and sustainable.
Do you ever think about the world you want your children to inherit?
When discussing infrastructure planning, colleagues and friends often say "of course" before qualifying their position.
Sadly, intergenerational legacy is often absent in political debate, much less any commitment to intergenerational equity. Yet, all new infrastructure development is an article of faith in the future, as what we build will define the world to be, for good or ill. The desired outcome of the infrastructure project should be its defining purpose.
All new infrastructure development is an article of faith in the future, as what we build will define the world to be, for good or ill.
The local community has a clear stake because the infrastructure will influence behaviours and, ultimately, its physical, mental and social well-being. When the community informs the outcome, it develops a sense of ownership, adopting and adapting the local infrastructure to grow its true value over time.
An enterprise-wide outcome-based approach to infrastructure planning only makes sense. Still, it remains extraordinarily rare as we focus infrastructure projects on current problems that more often reflect symptoms rather than underlying causes. The [UK] Infrastructure Owners Group stands out from the short-term view with their immensely pragmatic Project 13, showing us the best infrastructure delivery approach.
Lessons from the greats
It took me a while to fully appreciate this dynamic. I recognised in my early career that we could deliver highly successful projects without necessarily improving the lives of the intended beneficiaries. I initially decided this must be because we approached each new deliverable as an asset rather than a system component. I wanted to understand the dynamics and read all I could find. Many pearls of wisdom come to us over the centuries, from Cyrus the Great laying out the Persian Empire using what we would today call operational resilience principles, to Vitruvius advocating adaptation of standard designs to locally resourceable trades and supplies without compromising performance, and Indira Ghandhi’s speech to the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference linking environmental protection to poverty reduction.
The rapid expansion of possibilities from technological advances has brought us digital twins and vitae-system-of-systems models that allow us to predict the socioeconomic impact of development proposals and climate change effects. When we draw all these conceptual strands together, a clear foundation underpins best practice approaches in different jurisdictions. The approach to infrastructure differs worldwide; when we seek to understand the impact of infrastructure development, they are always the same fundamental concepts. These are what I sought to draw out in Planning Resilient Infrastructure Systems.
The research and collaborations that led to this book now focus on infrastructure rehabilitation in post and protracted conflict areas. In partnership with international organisations in humanitarian and development roles, we are exploring how to focus and sequence reconstruction efforts to restore infrastructure carrying capacity in step with community stabilisation and rehabilitation. Success depends on a balanced and stable rehabilitation programme where the critical infrastructure enables the essential service's capacity that serves the community's demand while always recognising the potential for a return to violence. The infrastructure systems must be inherently resilient and sustainable to support resilient essential services, improving health and reducing harm to the most vulnerable in a return to violence.
It is an exciting and immensely rewarding time to be working in infrastructure as the world grapples with an uncertain and increasingly threatening future amid climate change. Infrastructure engineers are needed more than ever to build the world our children deserve. It is time for us all to think carefully about what that world will be.
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