Unlocking the potential of InfraTech to help address climate change
We are at a crucial stage of the climate crisis. The best estimates of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are that greenhouse gas emissions will reach 1.5ºC in the near term, and the IPCC has issued dire warnings on the consequences of inaction. New infrastructure is needed to help address this issue and at pace – to decarbonise energy systems, facilitate the green economy, and ensure climate-resilient services.
Planning can be a major bottleneck to these actions, particularly for linear infrastructure. In the case of linear infrastructure, this is because it impacts multiple actors in the areas it spans. New technologies can help optimise the planning process, but they need to be governed robustly. Guardrails need to be developed quickly in a collaborative and adaptive manner to build stakeholder confidence.
What is linear infrastructure? Linear infrastructure is infrastructure that goes from ‘A to B’, often taking a straight form, for example roads, railways, powerlines, and pipelines. As it can span distances from a few to many kilometres, linear infrastructure typically impacts many stakeholders and many aspects of the environment.
How InfraTech can help untangle interrelated challenges in the planning process
In the UK, as in many other countries, spatial planning processes are struggling to keep up with the speed of change required to deal with climate change. Many communities are unprepared for the scale of new infrastructure that is needed. In the UK, the timeline for processing Development Consent Orders increased by 65% between 2012 and 2021, with some applications generating in excess of 90,000 pages of impenetrable documentation. The UK Government has recognised the problem and reform programs are in place, but implementation is a challenge.
Tackling these issues is not easy; they are often joined together in a complex Gordian knot. Change often requires breaking down decisionmaking silos – a task that is rarely easy in governments, where bureaucratic structures have often been in place for decades.
Beyond the spatial planning process, infrastructure – particularly in sectors like energy – is shaped by technical systems requirements, sector-specific regulation, and wider stakeholder concerns. These include addressing the impacts of infrastructure on local communities and on the wider environment, and issues such as land use and food security.
New Infratech digital tools such as AI-powered optioneering and stakeholder engagement can help address some of these interrelated challenges. They can help make decisionmaking more accessible and user-friendly, for example through interactive visualisations that enable developers and communities to interrogate different options, smoothing the way toward more constructive processes. By pulling together vast volumes of information from multiple data sources into a single ‘source of truth’, they can assist in the development of a more coherent process that bridges silos and speeds up the planning process, saving precious time and resources. And, by enabling real-time responses – for example, on environmental impact questions – they can bring more dynamism into infrastructure development so that it can flex with changing needs. All of this can help increase public acceptability and build trust, thus increasing project certainty.
The need for technology to serve communities, developers, and governments in planning
However, new tools should not be seen on their own as ‘the’ solution to infrastructure or climate problems. New techniques need to support engagement among communities, developers, and decisionmakers in a more streamlined process that frees up capacity for the difficult conversations that may be needed on issues that require a human face, judgement, and a better understanding of the places impacted. This is needed earlier in the process, whilst options are still open. The focus should be on enabling more participative and inclusive engagement processes that can demonstrate where engagement has had an impact and where the concerns of stakeholders have been taken into account.
Alongside cost and engineering data, new tools need to incorporate all the appropriate social, environmental, and economic impacts that new infrastructure may have, including those affecting equality and biodiversity. They need to clearly explain what has, and crucially what has not, been incorporated in calculations and the assumptions that sit behind these. And, the public needs to be assured that the use of technology like AI is trustworthy for these purposes. In short, new tools and approaches need to help facilitate change and support wider policy and regulatory reform programs and government goals.
For some InfraTech, not taking these points into account can create a risk that new technologies are seen as getting in the way of democratic processes and further obfuscating already difficult decisions – of increasing rather than reducing public acceptance challenges.
The UK’s Linear Infrastructure Planning Panel is a model for enabling tech to drive positive infrastructure outcomes
As the warning lights of climate change flash more urgently, prolonged disputes over consents are a risk that none of us can afford. We need to get this right. The UK’s new Linear Infrastructure Planning Panel has been established for exactly this reason. The Panel’s purpose is to engage key public interest stakeholders, including social and environmental groups, in the development of good practice and ethical approaches in the use of new techniques, such as algorithms and advanced software tools, for linear infrastructure planning. Following literature reviews, bilateral interviews with developers and planners, analysis of policy and regulatory developments and a cross-sectoral and global search for case studies, the Panel is carrying out deep dives into topics such as engagement and metrics to identify good practice principles and guidelines.
The Panel has been kick-started with seed corn funding from AI start-up Continuum Industries. This funding, Continuum’s practical experience working with developers and infrastructure bodies, and the willingness of Continuum and participating utilities to iterate, test, and learn from the Panel’s emerging recommendations should help ensure these add value in the real world in a timely way.
The diversity of those around the table is also helping to ensure the Panel’s work is focused on practical action. Panel members are drawn from a wide range of environmental and social NGOs and include experts in planning and environmental data, many of whom have extensive experience working with developers. They are joined by statutory consultees and government actors. The different nations of the UK are represented, bringing a wide variety of experiences. The main Panel deliverable at the end of the first year will be a good practice white paper that will be disseminated globally and will describe how new tools and approaches can support linear infrastructure planning. Examples from infrastructure bodies in other countries would be welcome additions to the white paper’s growing evidence base.
The Panel is ‘one to watch’ for governments, utilities, and tech companies
As a new and cost-effective initiative aiming at good practice for robust, collaborative, and adaptive use of InfraTech in linear infrastructure, the Linear Infrastructure Planning Panel is an interesting model that other jurisdictions may wish to consider or adapt to their unique country needs. Delays in infrastructure programs are costly. Delays in tackling climate change will lead to exponential cost increases and may threaten our survival. The Linear Infrastructure Planning Panel is a small initiative that cannot address infrastructure challenges and climate risks on its own. But by tackling one of the most difficult bottlenecks in infrastructure development, it has the potential to make a significant impact. It is early days for the Panel’s work, but sometimes from small seeds, great things can grow.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the Panel chair and do not necessarily represent the views of Panel members or the GI Hub. For more information about the Panel, or to share case studies and examples of good practice in this area, please visit the Panel’s website or follow the Panel on LinkedIn.