Infrastructure Resilience – An Industry Challenge

Article written by Andrew Body, Director and Sector Lead Transport.

My grandfather was – to put it politely – a very frugal man.  So, when he gave me advice that there are some things in life you should not skimp on, I paid attention.  The examples he used were a bed and shoes.  His reasoning was that you use them every day, you want them to work well and support you, and if you buy the right ones and look after them, they’ll last you a long time.  I have (mostly) followed his advice. 

What’s the relevance to infrastructure you may ask?  Until about six months ago, I would have said my grandfather’s advice also applied to infrastructure – buy quality, build it well, look after it and it will look after you. Given that, most infrastructure is, after all, a multi-generational investment.  What made sense for Grandad’s shoes also makes sense for bridges, doesn’t it?  Perhaps not all the time – and particularly if uncertain events conspire to massively reduce the asset life of the bridge or the shoes – think Cyclone Gabrielle, or the dog from next door.  If these events become more likely, should we buy bigger, stronger bridges and shoes to deal with the greater likelihood of these events? Or should we accept that ‘stuff happens’ and it’s better to have a lower up-front cost with the ability to quickly and cost-effectively respond or replace when disaster strikes?  We could also decide to protect or mitigate – I’m sure Grandad’s approach would have involved some ‘coaching’ of the dog (or its owner), but that’s not an answer for all critical infrastructure.   

How we respond to the increased likelihood of extreme events is occupying the thoughts of infrastructure professionals at all levels – from Government policy and funding considerations to design standards and approaches to asset management.  Just this month the Government announced the National Resilience Plan.  In releasing the plan, the Minister of Finance noted that “The North Island weather events have added a level of urgency to our infrastructure investment planning and highlighted the importance of building strong and resilient infrastructure…. Budget 2023 sets aside $6 billion for strategic investments as part of a National Resilience Plan”.  The Minister noted that the investment will initially focus on building back better from the recent weather events, and then focus on future-proofing road, rail, telecommunications and electricity transmission infrastructure. 

It’s clear that addressing vulnerabilities in our infrastructure systems to function during adverse conditions and quickly recover after an event is fundamental to the wellbeing of communities.  The challenge to all of us now is how we choose to respond.  At Vitruvius, a fundamental philosophy is that we are data-driven, in all aspects of our business, our designs and our advice to clients.  This is more important than ever in the case of addressing our infrastructure vulnerabilities.  There are very large costs to address the damage done in the recent events, let alone the costs to strengthen critical existing assets, and then to ensure that any new infrastructure we build is resilient and enduring.  Climate models, rainfall models, saturation models, and many other models, are now vital and need to be made available to all parts of the industry to ensure that all planning, development, and maintenance activities have the best possible information on which to make decisions.  Infrastructure Australia has recognised this in its Pathway to Infrastructure Resilience, which notes the critical importance of coordinating, sharing and standardising critical disaster and climate data collection for informed planning, action, and decision-making.   

What we’re working through now at Vitruvius as a business is what additional data we need, and how we use that data to make design or asset management decisions.  Should we design bigger and stronger?  Should we accept some level of failure of the asset, and ensure that any failure occurs in a way that is safe, somewhat expected and can be built back quickly and cost-effectively?  Or perhaps in some instances is the right answer simply that it does not make sense to build/develop in that location? One of the areas where we see a need for improvement is the robust and systematic mapping of hazards across infrastructure networks, to prioritise investment in maintaining those networks.   Most current investment in infrastructure is predicated by growth, or a desire to improve services or economic or social outcomes.  Recent events show that there is a need to think more clearly about where we should invest to prevent loss.   

It is important that we look to lessons from other jurisdictions.  One publication helping to guide some of our thinking is Principles for Resilient Infrastructure from the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.  The paper lists principles and actions for resilient infrastructure, including ensuring designs contemplate safety if there is a failure, using nature-based solutions, committing to maintenance regimes, and embedding emergency management facilities.  All are actions we can undertake now, and can manifest in simple, powerful (but not necessarily attractive) solutions.  For instance, making sure that we minimise subsidence risks through quality site testing like soakage rates/percolation tests, and make the right decisions to balance capital costs with risk, cost, loss of time and ability to serve impacted communities in disaster situations. 

While there is a way to go, I am confident that, over time, Resilience in Design will become as common as Safety in Design in the way that we go about our work.  Innovation will be key!  Our industry is full of diverse people and ideas, and the time for them to drive this change is now.  We at Vitruvius are committed and look forward to being part of the solution.