Time for a rethink

Systems-level thinking is necessary to deliver the infrastructure projects that meet environmental, social and economic needs, says Ian Nicholson.


Investment in the UK’s economic and social infrastructure – roads, rail, aviation, ports and power stations among them – will amount to £300bn by 2020/21. It creates jobs, improves mobility, increases productivity and, when done well, enhances our natural environment as well as our built environment.

It is, of course, not without its challenges. The process creates disruption, often costs more than originally budgeted and disturbs the natural environment. The latter impacts local communities both during construction and during operational phases – for example, there may be air pollution consequences and increased CO2 emissions resulting from the initial activity (although taking a sustainable approach will likely lessen them, too).

“An impartial, national perspective that starts with systems-level thinking is likely to deliver a better, more sustainable solution”

However, our economy depends on the progress delivered by improved infrastructure. We cannot be more productive if we are constantly stuck in traffic jams, our trains fail to operate to a timetable because of track failings or we face unnecessary and unacceptable flight delays at our airports because we do not have the required capacity.   

I believe there is a solution, though, whereby the needs of the environment, society and the economy can be met. It requires a paradigm shift. I would argue that an impartial, national perspective that starts with systems-level thinking, asking the question ‘what is the problem we are trying to solve?’, is likely to deliver a better, more sustainable solution.

For example, if the original problem of Heathrow reaching capacity had been redefined as ‘the south-east of England needs more air capacity – how do we solve this?’ and a systems-thinking approach had been applied, then perhaps an alternative solution would have been considered more fully.

Ideas such as Halcrow and Foster + Partners’ concept for a Thames Estuary airport, incorporating a new flood barrier and tidal energy barrage into the required transport tunnel, demonstrate clear systems thinking. Another example is the HS4Air proposal from Expedition Engineering, which suggests creating a multi-location hub by using high speed rail to connect airports. These two examples provide different examples of systems-level thinking.

With the Thames Estuary Airport concept, Halcrow and Foster + Partners widened its consideration from just solving an airport expansion problem to include other problems that could be solved at the same time. An island airport would require a tunnel under the Thames to accommodate both road and rail connections into the airport – so Halcrow and Foster + Partners considered how the costs of that could be ameliorated. It did this by proposing that the tunnel structure incorporate a tidal barrage to generate energy and enable a new Thames Barrier to be constructed (something that will be needed by 2100, given predicted sea level rise). The location of the island was also critically considered and placed to enable simple connection to the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (HS1) and the new London Gateway Port.

“Our national infrastructure projects are those that are uniquely positioned to – and must – take a broader systems-level thinking perspective”

HS4Air, meanwhile, would solve the South-East’s air capacity problem by ‘sweating’ our existing assets. It proposed connecting Gatwick and Heathrow airports with a high-speed rail link that would enable rapid transit between the two, allowing the two airports to act as a single hub. This would enable much more efficient use of existing capacity and minimise the need for physical airport expansion. The idea was considered in the very early days of the Heathrow expansion debate, but in recent times was never reconsidered alongside what appeared to be a binary choice of Heathrow’s third runway or Gatwick’s second runway. The solution also incorporates improvements to the domestic rail network around the south-west corner of London, solving a number of capacity problems that Network Rail are grappling with.

If this was reconsidered, current innovative technology such as hyperloop could transform this option even further, with transfer times from Gatwick to Heathrow potentially being quicker than the journey between T5’s main terminal and its 5C satellite.

I believe our national infrastructure projects are those that are uniquely positioned to – and must – take this broader systems-level thinking perspective. The imperatives to do so are not only the environmental consequences of a 'business as usual' approach – with the attendant adverse societal impacts – but also the economic effect; investors are increasingly demanding it as a requisite of their funding criteria.

Earlier this year, for example, BlackRock – the largest investor in the world, managing assets of more than $6trn in investments – informed business leaders that their companies need to do more than make profits if they want support from BlackRock. They now need to "contribute to society on issues ranging from retirement and infrastructure to automation and worker retraining as well”.

GRESB Infrastructure Asset Assessment, the investor-driven global ESG benchmark for the infrastructure sector (which recognises CEEQUAL and includes BlackRock among its 21 Infrastructure Investment Members) "provides the basis for systematic reporting, objective scoring and peer benchmarking of ESG management and performance of infrastructure assets around the world".

Its members' influence is such – at government borrowing level as well as for private investment – that all major (and minor for that matter) projects can no longer simply meet the minimum compliance in the expectation that it will be sufficient to win financial backing. A positive social and environmental impact is now becoming the new norm. 

CEEQUAL has long advocated for this new norm. Its current methodology includes questions that stimulate asset owners and their project teams to consider how well the infrastructure they are delivering is contributing to more sustainable living for communities. Systems-level thinking, at the earliest stage, is, I believe, increasingly fundamental to their ability to do so effectively.


Ian Nicholson, director CEEQUAL and Infrastructure at BRE, will present at the 8th Annual APRES Conference: ‘If Not Now, Then When: Responsible Sourcing and Procurement for Infrastructure Projects’ at Pinsent Masons LLP on 1 November 2018.


Image credit | iStock
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