Note: This article was written and published prior to the devastating earthquake that struck Türkiye and Syria on 6 February 2023. The GI Hub is deeply saddened by this tragedy and our thoughts remain with the citizens of these countries and all who have been impacted.
2022 was a year of reckoning on critical infrastructure. Worldwide, people and governments grappled with the consequences of natural and human-made disasters, from electrical grid failures and cyberattacks to extreme heat and cold, floods, droughts, fires, and earthquakes – and seemingly everything in between. For long periods, critical infrastructure was unavailable, operating below capacity, or underutilised.
The need to shore up the resilience of critical infrastructure was highlighted in October 2022 by US President Joe Biden’s Proclamation on Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience and in January 2023 as NATO and the US agreed to create a taskforce on resilience and critical infrastructure protection.
These topics are not new – but they are evolving rapidly as risks arise and increase from factors like climate change, supply chain disruption, and geopolitical fragmentation.
It’s a timely moment to ask: what qualifies as critical infrastructure, and what can governments and industry do to increase its resilience? We spoke to four experts for their perspectives:
- Sarah Cumbers, Director of Evidence and Insight, Lloyd's Register Foundation
- Professor Jim W Hall FREng, Professor of Climate and Environmental Risks, Oxford Programme for Sustainable Infrastructure Systems
- Lavan Thiru, Executive Director, Infrastructure Asia
- David Hawkes, Head of Policy, Institution of Civil Engineers.
Q: What is critical infrastructure?
Sarah Cumbers: From the point of view of Lloyd’s Register Foundation as a safety charity, ‘critical’ infrastructure can be defined as that which is required to avert harm to people or property. Physical infrastructure – water, food, energy, transport infrastructure, telecommunications, health services – is of course a huge part of that. However, the Lloyd’s Register Foundation Resilience Index invites us to think about critical infrastructure in a broader sense. By showing how resilience is comprised of a variable mix of individual, household, community, and societal factors, our Resilience Index shows how the less tangible social infrastructure of community support networks is also critical to preventing and mitigating harm in many parts of the world.
Professor Jim W Hall: There are several different definitions of critical infrastructure. Invariably they include the economic infrastructures of energy, transport, water supply, and telecommunications. Most extend also to cover flood protection, urban drainage, sewage, and solid waste. Others include social infrastructure like hospitals, care homes, schools, and prisons and other essential services for business operation.
Lavan Thiru: Critical infrastructure refers to assets or services that are essential to society and economy such as energy, water, telecommunication, transportation, and healthcare. Absence or incapacity of such core infrastructure could lead to significant economic and/or social losses.
Q: What are the biggest risks to critical infrastructure in the immediate future?
Sarah Cumbers: We look at risks primarily from the perspective of individual safety, but some risks we see increasing for individuals globally, such as harm from severe weather, certainly also pose a serious threat to the physical infrastructure on which they depend. More than two thirds of the global population still view climate change as a threat to their country within the next 20 years. However, it is important to be conscious of how both experienced and perceived threats vary from country to country and region to region. For instance, in Latin America and Southern Africa, more than two in five people named crime and violence as the biggest threat to their personal safety, with corresponding implications for the safety of infrastructure.
Professor Jim W Hall: If we look at the frequency of failure of critical infrastructure, mostly this is due to operational failures – for example, equipment breakdowns or operator errors. We see a large number of weather-related failures. Although these systems are now under frequent cyberattack, they mostly hold up well.
David Hawkes: Climate change. The economic benefits of climate change adaptation are likely to be considerably higher than its costs. It is therefore clear that decisions based on best value rather than lowest cost are needed when considering infrastructure resilience and adaptation. All this requires a proportionate response as investment needs to be targeted to where it will have the greatest impact - it’s impossible to adapt every piece of the infrastructure system in every location and the public need to be aware that climate change means they will face increased disruption. Data, or the lack of it, is also a major risk to critical infrastructure. There is limited knowledge in terms of location, nature, condition, and impact of failure. The disparate datasets for assets, in particular networks, makes it difficult to assess total risk.
Q: Are risks to critical infrastructure – especially physical risks – increasing?
Sarah Cumbers: Looking at our latest World Risk Poll data from 2021, we can see that one type of physical risk is increasing, and that is harm from severe weather. It was reported by 27% of people globally – up 5% from 2019.
David Hawkes: Yes. Climate-related disasters across the world have focused attention on the need for resilient and adaptive infrastructure. Civil engineers are used to designing and building infrastructure for extremes, not averages, but the dial has shifted recently on the definition of ‘extreme’. Different infrastructure sectors are highly interdependent, so the shutdown of one operator may cause knock-on effects on multiple other sectors. The reliance of other infrastructure on the power sector presents an acute vulnerability as nations increasingly – and necessarily – shift towards electric transport and heating options.
Lavan Thiru: Yes, they are. As temperatures rise around the world, demand for electricity increases and this could add strain on critical infrastructure to manage the increased load. Aside from climate change, the changing needs of people requires more responsive and flexible infrastructure to manage their demands. With the rise in smart grids and renewable energy, people have more control over their energy usage and critical infrastructure must adapt quickly to meet these needs.
Q: How can the infrastructure sector and policymakers address these risks?
Lavan Thiru: They can address these risks through dialogues, system updates and audits, capacity building, and better project structuring to ensure the risk-return trade-offs are acceptable to all parties. The public and private sector need to work closer together to share cyber-defence best practices and implement appropriate risk management policies so they can properly assess, prioritise, control, and manage risks.
David Hawkes: Managing risks requires changes to how our legacy infrastructure is monitored and maintained, as well as retrofitted. Without this, we risk increased repair bills, poorly performing infrastructure, and even cascade failures – with potentially devastating consequences. Ongoing maintenance work is essential to reduce the risk of system failure. Failure to adequately maintain and protect our critical infrastructure, or to build in any reserve capacity, will leave us potentially as vulnerable to critical infrastructure failure as acts of terrorism or natural disasters.
In addition to current infrastructure, new infrastructure needs to be designed and operated in a way that copes better with today’s extremes and is resilient to the more ‘extreme extremes’ of the future. We also need to better understand the economics of resilience to gain a better outlook of the long-term value that investing in resilience can provide. ‘Best value’ may then be interpreted as the optimum cost that provides robust and flexible performance under a range of future scenarios.
Professor Jim W Hall: The UK’s National Infrastructure Commission produced a report on resilience called Anticipate, React, Recover that sets out a logical framework of establishing resilience standards, stress testing and resilience strategies.