Transforming Critical Infrastructure: Matching the Complexity of the Environment to Policy

Transforming Critical Infrastructure: Matching the Complexity of the Environment to Policy

Liz Varga, Fatih Camci, Joby Boxall, Amir Toossi, John Machell, Phil T. Blythe, Colin Taylor
Copyright: © 2013 |Pages: 12
DOI: 10.4018/ijepr.2013070104
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The application of complexity science to policy for critical infrastructure systems has never been more important. A number of issues highlight the need for policy to match the complexity of the co-evolving environment: increasing interdependency between utilities, uncontrolled demand leading to over use of diminishing resources, diverse technological opportunities with unclear investment choices, governance at different scales, public-private ownership differences and emerging business models. Systems are now so complex that people do not understand the interdependencies. Individual utilities are optimised with limited redundancy so that even minor failures can lead to major impacts throughout the whole infrastructure environment. This article proposes an ontology of critical infrastructure in which the points of conversion in the system are the generic units of analysis. Each conversion point has a set of properties representing its real world description. This ontological perspective highlights the inter-disciplinary nature of critical infrastructure systems. It also allows, through the adoption of an agent-based modelling approach, the simulation of different environmental constraints, such as those of resource availability. Methodologically, such modelling provides an abstracted view of infrastructure systems that simplifies the real world but allows policy options to be tested based on assumptions about behaviour in response to exogenous changes. Epistemologically, it focuses on a dynamic, co-evolutionary understanding of the system transition over time by examining holistic, systemic outcomes, connecting micro behaviours with macro structures. A case study of critical infrastructure in Yorkshire in the UK provides an exemplar of complexity in the real world. The model, a metaphysical representation, demonstrates how policy can be connected with the real world. This paper focuses on the infrastructure in the UK but the principles will apply to other countries.
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Infrastructure systems deliver utility products (and services) which are needed for public well-being (Little, 2005). Domestic users have needs and wants which are supplied via infrastructure: such as the need for mobility, warmth, sanitation, drinking water. Commercial and industrial businesses use infrastructure as a means of commerce and production imposing different demands from domestic users. However the same critical infrastructure supplies all types of consumer.

Government involvement in infrastructure is inevitable not only because infrastructure provides essential services, but because it is a national asset cutting across regional boundaries and with development timescales beyond the horizons of individuals and commercial enterprises. Since privatization in the 1980s, government involvement in commissioning, financing, building, operating and decommissioning has varied for different infrastructures. Regulation, legislation and subsidies/incentives are minimum areas of government involvement. Regulation seeks to assure safety and continuity of supply whilst at the same time ensuring competition. Legislation is needed for major changes, such as carbon emission controls. Subsidies and incentives can target various groups providing opportunities to shape demand and more broadly, to influence behaviour.

It may be argued that regulation in the UK has failed to ensure sufficient system resilience. Regulators are inclined to take relatively short timescales to suit commercial interests; and the prevailing political ideology of recent decades has favoured 'light touch' regulation on the basis that the 'free market' will provide the best solutions. The legal regime also requires regulators to focus on single utility products and services, such as water, energy, and telecoms. This mirrors the industry and professional associations which have developed skill sets and knowledge specific to the utility products they provide and to its infrastructure. But the nature of infrastructure is such that each type converges with the others at point of consumption, such as homes, businesses and factories. Also, because transportation of the utility products attempts to take the shortest path to consumption, water and sewage mains, power lines, telecoms lines and roads, share corridors to consumers. This co-location creates risks and if one utility is disrupted, others may be. For example, severe weather events, such as prolonged periods of rain causing flooding, can lead to the closure of roads and damage to dams, power lines and substations in highly populated areas located on rivers and in flood plains.

The infrastructure of the UK has been built up over a long period of time with some systems dating from the nineteenth century. Much of the older infrastructure was built with a vision of greater capacity than current need and so has remained in use despite inefficiencies. But assets deteriorate due to ‘use’ and change in use. For example, parts of the gas network are old and vulnerable to fracture and suffer from the effects of the change from town gas to natural gas (Mitchell et al., 1990).

From a utility centric perspective, Peerenboom et al. (quoted in Little, 2005) visualize utility connections as provision of utility products and services, see Figure 1. Each link connects the requirement for utility products and highlights interdependencies which may compromise the infrastructure system as a whole, leading to outages in multiple utility systems. These risks are exacerbated by the ageing infrastructure, increasing growth in population and increased diversity of technology, and consequent demand for the infrastructure system to provide greater quantities of utility products. Together with environmental concerns of climate change impact and an ageing infrastructure, there is now a focus for integrated infrastructure systems research. It has been argued that existing research has focused mainly on supply substitution which improves carbon efficiency since it is politically easier than focusing on the technical options of energy efficiency (demand substitution) (Cullen et al., 2011). Such observations highlight the limited, utility-centric nature of much existing infrastructure development. There is clearly a need for a coherent and integrated approach to infrastructure research, breaking down the silo mentality and taking a holistic view of utility provision.

Figure 1.

Conceptual model of the operational interdependencies between common infrastructure systems (Little, 2005) © 2013 R.G. Little. Used with permission


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