Expecting the Unexpected

The key to long-term management of infrastructure lies in futureproofing, say Duncan McFarlane and Tariq Masood.

We live in an increasingly short-term society where goods and equipment are built for very brief life cycles. There are, however, exceptions and the long-term management of key infrastructure is one.

Maintaining performance from infrastructure over a long period of time is essential for a functioning society and sustaining the economy but, in order to achieve this, we need to understand the sort of future our key infrastructure faces - be it meeting the changing needs of its users or managing the effects of climate change.


The current conditions and performance requirements faced by key infrastructure are not an adequate indication of the potential challenges facing infrastructure in 20, 50 or 100 years' time. A different approach is key to the successful long-term management of infrastructure.


In conjunction with a consortium of industry partners, the Asset Management team at Cambridge University's Centre for Smart Infrastructure has set out to systematise the way in which future challenges for our infrastructure are identified, quantified and managed. As part of this approach, two broad issues are being considered for futureproofing key infrastructure:

  1. provision of resilience to unexpected or uncontrollable events
  2. enabling of adaptability to (future) required changes in structure or operations of key infrastructure

Addressing these two issues means futureproofing considerations range, for example, from managing increased flood risk on the rail network and planning for increased capacity at airport terminals, to preparing foundations to be equipped to support the future additions of floors to an office building. 


A recent series of workshops held with CSIC Industry Partners examined how companies currently address future needs of key infrastructure and discussed the barriers and challenges for integrating futureproofing into current practice for asset management. The workshops identified a number of futureproofing-related strategies including scenario planning, modular construction and through-life monitoring and risk management. Discussion revealed that different industry organisations currently use various tools to meet differing needs.

While approaches to futureproofing differed, two clear outstanding issues were identified as being shared by all organisations present:

  1. the need for a systematic framework for capturing all necessary future considerations for infrastructure
  2. an urgent requirement for guidelines to integrate futureproofing into today's (long-term) asset management practices

These two issues form part of a study being conducted at CSIC that responds directly to the infrastructure futureproofing challenges experienced by infrastructure asset owners and managers today. 


As part of this response, CSIC is developing a framework to address these two key issues. The framework will identify the way future needs for managing high impact events, such as flooding, or changing usage modes - including capacity expansion, will alter current practices in the design, construction and asset management of infrastructure.


In its simplest form this futureproofing framework will identify appropriate tools and approaches that need be considered at each stage of the development and management of key infrastructure.  


As part of the framework, a prototype tool for integrating futureproofing considerations into asset management is currently being trialled in several case studies with a number of project industry partners. These case studies are examining futureproofing needs associated with a major UK railway network and a waste water treatment system in the North West and will help to determine the usefulness and usability of this innovative tool.


Indirectly, the framework will also influence the sensing and data required to support these considerations. In a related project, the long-term retention needs for sensed and other data in supporting the infrastructure during future change and events is currently being examined.


Our aim is to put futureproofing on the agenda for every new build and for it to be embedded in asset management practices for existing infrastructure.

Producing an effective futureproofing tool will enable asset managers to maintain optimum performance from infrastructure and secure best value for money throughout an asset's entire lifetime.  


To see this article as it was originally published in Infrastructure Intelligence click here.

Date published

17 June 2015

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