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National infrastructure systems (energy, transport, water, waste water and solid waste) form the basis of societies’ economic and social wellbeing, requiring significant human and capital investments. Building infrastructure is a long-term commitment that is difficult to reverse and thus has major implications for sustainability, mitigation of carbon emissions and adaptation to the impacts of climate change. Researchers at the University of Oxford have been working closely with UK government bodies to use models to help inform the government’s investment decisions.

Plastic pipelines

The Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC) is an EPSRC-funded programme led by the University of Oxford, providing concepts, models and evidence to inform the analysis, planning and design of national infrastructure. It is developing a series of pioneering models with supporting database and visualisation tools, the National Infrastructure System Model (NISMOD) family. One of its key components, NISMOD-LP (LP for ‘Long term Performance’), integrates engineering-based models of demand and capacity for UK infrastructure services. In 2015 the ITRC’s Principal Investigator, Professor Jim Hall, used an EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) award to support the application of the NISMOD-LP model to the analysis of proposed government investments.

The IAA enabled the ITRC’s research and expertise to be brought directly into infrastructure planning concerns that were relevant to the UK’s HM Treasury. NISMOD-LP achieved a completely new level of insight previously unavailable to HM Treasury, enabling an analysis of the government’s infrastructure ‘pipeline’ - planned investment in infrastructure - against a set of future scenarios run across all infrastructure sectors; something that was not possible with standalone departmental models. The secondment produced outputs that provided evidence to officials and ministers regarding the robustness of the current infrastructure pipeline to the future uncertainties of socio-economic and climatic change.

Following the success of this collaboration, a second EPSRC IAA-funded secondment commenced in late 2017, this time with the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), the body now responsible for advising the government on infrastructure policy and strategy. Thanks to this funding, one of the ITRC team, Dr Matthew Ives, is working with the NIC on their Interim National Infrastructure Assessment for the UK which features extensive analysis of future demands for infrastructure services based on the modelling outputs of ITRC’s NISMOD-LP tool. This collaboration will continue until the release of the NIC’s Full National Infrastructure Assessment later in 2018.

“The Impact Accelerator Award has given us the opportunity to bring ITRC-MISTRAL’s expertise directly into our team, working on identifying the UK’s future infrastructure needs. It’s meant that Matt Ives has been able to focus his efforts on working with us, and as a result we’ve made quicker progress on this critical piece of work. This has allowed us to adjust the ITRC model in line with our scenarios, carry out sensitivity tests and gain deeper insights into future infrastructure needs.”

-          Dr James Richardson, Chief Economist, National Infrastructure Commission