Future Infrastructure Forum (FIF) - a network for resilient and sustainable infrastructure

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge


The economic and social well-being of society is dependent on the efficient performance of the nation's infrastructure which encompasses transport networks (roads, bridges, railways, tunnels, airports and canals), the energy sector (power stations, electricity and gas distribution networks), water supply and waste treatment facilities, buildings and also digital communications networks (telephone and internet).

Much of this infrastructure is in a serious state of disrepair or reaching the end of its economic life (e.g. the first generation nuclear power stations) and governments have recognised the need for substantial investment to regenerate and expand the existing infrastructure as well as build new infrastructure to meet the challenges posed by increasing population and climate change.

In addition to these requirements, a recent Infrastructure UK report suggests that the construction industry in the UK is less efficient and significantly more expensive than counterparts on the continent and overseas. It highlighted the need for a radical rethink of the entire industry which is often characterised as being 'old and slow' as opposed to the 'new and fast' technology sectors such as the aerospace and automobile industries. The fragmented nature of the overall supply chain, and the length of innovation cycle (20 years or more) have historically made industry transformation difficult to deliver. The industry also creates significant waste. Out of 420m tonnes of material consumed in the UK each year, an estimated 20% is thrown away.

In 2008 the then Labour government set a series of challenging targets to improve sustainability in the construction sector. These include: (a) improve design; (b) promote innovation sustainability; (c) improve procurement and adopt whole life cycle principles; (d) increase training and reduce accidents; (e) achieve 50% reduction in construction waste to landfill by 2012; (f) reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 and at least 34% by 2020 and (g) conserve water and enhance biodiversity on construction sites. Although some of these targets may be modified by the new government, it is likely that many will still be enforced and there remains a firm commitment to sustainable construction.

On top of these targets, there is growing recognition that our infrastructure needs to be more resilient to the extremes of weather (such as floods and snow in the UK and hurricanes in Australia), and to the loads imposed by natural hazards such as earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as man-made events such as terrorist bombs and fires. All of these drivers serve to emphasise the importance of finding a mechanism to promote and implement the changes required. A 'business as usual' approach cannot be continued if these targets are to be achieved.

The mission of the proposed Future Infrastructure Forum (FIF) is to generate a new vision of the shape of tomorrow's construction industry by providing a roadmap of research priorities in the ground and structural engineering sectors which will lead to firm proposals for innovative research aimed at revolutionizing how we procure, design and deliver major infrastructure projects. A key feature of this Forum is its broad membership which includes academics from over 20 of the top research Universities in the UK plus representatives from major consultants, contractors and industry and client organisations. In addition, a panel of experts from key international markets will be invited to participate and highlight the state-of-the-art and recent innovations across the globe. A core function will be to identify specific areas of focus and research projects which could be instigated immediately to precipitate this transformation. It will promote a total rethink of the fundamental approach to design, challenge established norms and stimulate innovation in construction.

Planned Impact

The UK Council for Science and Technology's report titled "A National Infrastructure for the 21st Century", which was published in June 2009, identifies the critical role our national infrastructure plays in maintaining the competitiveness of the UK economy. It also identifies various challenges facing the construction sector and highlights areas where innovation and new technology might improve the UK position in the highly competitive global market place.
Worldwide investment in infrastructure is set to soar over the next 20 years. Much of this work will be located in rapidly developing countries such as China, India and Brazil although all the developed countries, including the UK, are also investing massive sums to upgrade their ageing infrastructure and expand it to accommodate new demands in response to increasing population and threats from climate change and other extreme natural and man-made events.

By investing in networks which promote cross-fertilisation of ideas and the adoption of new technologies the UK can position itself to gain substantial economic benefit by becoming a leader in the worldwide construction sector. The UK will not be able to compete with many of the developing countries on price alone, so it will need to focus on clever thinking, innovation and the smart implementation of technology so that we can establish and maintain a competitive advantage.

This Forum will produce a "Vision of the Future" document to provide guidance to the funding bodies on where the priority areas for future research funding lie. This document should identify the areas in which there is most potential for major technological advances which may well lead to opportunities for spin-out companies and new technology sectors in the construction industry. This should stimulate the wider research community to initiate new research programmes aimed at finding solutions to the various challenge identified.

Another key area where the network may have significant impact will be by instilling a new philosophy in the approach to design and construction. In particular, all levels of the industry are finally recognising the urgent need to adopt whole life cycle procedures when planning, designing and building major infrastructure. This process needs to be pushed along.

The areas where innovation might make a significant impact should not be pre-judged before the Forum events are held. Nevertheless there are a number of recent advances resulting from University research which are being adopted by consultants and contractors on some of the largest new infrastructure projects currently under construction, such as Crossrail. This indicates that industry is recognising the benefits to be gained by early adoption of new technology and the establishment of close partnerships with Universities.

There is also scope for major restructuring of the procurement process, already the subject of a detailed review by government as a result of massive over-runs and delays in completion of some large PFI projects. This could lead to dramatic reductions in the cost to the taxpayer of delivering such essential facilities as roads, bridges, hospitals and schools. It may well be that one of the research projects emanating from this network will deliver new procurement strategies that could be adopted for such projects.

The involvement of international experts in this network also provides the opportunity for the participants to learn from best practice abroad as well as identify those areas in which we currently hold a competitive edge.



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Clarke B (2016) The future of geotechnical and structural engineering research in Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers - Civil Engineering

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Filder, P.R.A. (2013) Construction Monitoring Constraints and Challenges: A Feasibility Study in Proceedings the 6th International Conference on Structural Health Monitoring of Intelligent Infrastructure

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Jia Y (2015) A vibration powered wireless mote on the Forth Road Bridge in Journal of Physics: Conference Series

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Vardanega P (2016) Assessing the potential value of bridge monitoring systems in Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers - Bridge Engineering

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Vardanega PJ (2016) Innovative Bridge Design Handbook

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Webb G (2014) Analysis of Structural Health Monitoring Data from Hammersmith Flyover in Journal of Bridge Engineering

Description This has established a number of new collaborative networks amongst the large number of universities and industry partners that participated in this programme and this also led to a number of grant proposals to EPSRC, three of which were funded. This has also led to an going programme of engagement and discussion within the profession to define the priorities for research in structural and geotechnical engineering in the UK.
Exploitation Route This forum has been used by a large number of the academic community to help determine ongoing research topics for submission to the research councils. As a result of this network EPSRC put out a call covering ground and structural engineering and also the research covered by the LimesNet project and received 15 submissions of which 3 were funded for total of £4.7Million. These 3 collaborative projects all evolved form thee networks and were titled iSMART, Materials for Life (M4L) and DURACOMP.
Sectors Construction,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Energy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Transport

URL http://www.icevirtuallibrary.com/doi/full/10.1680/jcien.15.00029
Description A number of industry partners joined in with academic consortia to bid for and also undertake new research projects facilitated from the Future Infrastructure Forum events.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Construction,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Energy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Transport
Impact Types Economic