Highlights from the UK Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium Launch Event

Jim Watson

By Dr. Ralitsa Hiteva

I work as a Research Fellow for the UK Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC). Fresh out of my PhD, this is my first post-doctoral research job and, having recently attended the launch event of the first comprehensive results of the ITRC modelling and appraisal activities, I am excited to see the importance and potential impact of my work. The objective of the ITRC is to inform the analysis, planning and design of national infrastructure, through the development and demonstration of new decision support tools. Working with partners in government and industry the research focuses on the interdependencies of energy, transport, water, waste, and information and communication technologies (ICT) systems at a national scale. The launch event was held at the Institution of Civil Engineers on Tuesday 14th January and was followed by a networking reception with industry stakeholders and people working for various national and local authorities.

The reason for the launch was a 104 page report which considers a proliferation of options (regulatory, technical etc.) for infrastructure provision until 2050. The analysis of energy supply and demand is the most extensive of all five sectors. One of the main messages – which although intuitive, still needs to be taken to heart by policy makers and industry – was that more expensive infrastructure produces the least amount of carbon dioxide emissions. However, the difference in investment levels between the least carbon intensive portfolios of strategies and the more carbon intensive ones is substantial. The minefield of trade-offs between different options across sectors can be illustrated by the relationship between natural gas and electricity. Low carbon strategies involved low levels of use of natural gas, while fuel switching was found to be key to achieving major reduction in carbon emissions, particularly in the residential and services sectors. The messages from the transport sector echoed those of energy and waste – that managing infrastructure demand until 2050 has to move beyond the strategy of predict and supply, and will require significant behavioural changes to reduce demand.

One of the speakers, Keith Clarke argued that the ITRC report is as important as the Stern report, because it is a first of its kind and because of the potential it has to influence policy making and planning for the next decade and beyond. The ITRC ambition is to enable a revolution in strategic and cross-cutting UK planning for the future.

My role in the project is to work with Professor Jim Watson to map and analyse the existing arrangements for governing infrastructure interdependency and making use of some international case studies (the EU, Smart Cities and South Korea) to discuss how these fit with the findings of the ITRC cross-sector analysis. One argument we are making is for an integrated approach to infrastructure interdependency , which considers the economic and security benefits of creating joint (sector) infrastructure – using existing infrastructure systems to roll out new and different types of infrastructure such as electricity and broadband – along with the production of vulnerability and uncertainty through infrastructure interdependency. However, the UK will need mechanisms to bring in a broader range of actors to facilitate infrastructure coordination.

For a young researcher this event was a launch for me as much as it was for the report. It strengthened my conviction that infrastructure is one of the most exciting areas of research in transitions studies, with immense impact potential for society, industry and policy makers. Behind the technical details of available technology (for example available software was highlighted as a building block of development of all critical types of infrastructure) and numbers (i.e. population growth), there were thick layers of cultural assumptions, embedded expectations and institutionalised behaviour. Infrastructure transitions are not going to be just about infrastructure but will be nested within parallel transitions in energy production and use; trade-offs between water and energy supply, energy and modes of travel and transportation; as well as how much we shop and what we throw away. The story which emerged from the cross sectoral analysis of the 5 ITRC sectors was one of radical change, not only of the type of ideas it was capable of accommodating but also of the type of researchers it was beckoning.

Ralitsa Hiteva is a Research Fellow in the Sussex Energy Group based in SPRU (Science and Technology Policy Research) at the University of Sussex.

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