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Critical Infrastructure Interdependency: barrier or opportunity?

This article, from Dr Maryam Imani, Senior Lecturer in Civil Engineering, School of Engineering and the Built Environment, at Anglia Ruskin University, examines the interdependency of critical infrastructure in the UK and how to tackle infrastructure problems in the future.

Glasgow’s flooding, as a result of water drain and sewer system failure in 2002, led to severe damages to many homes and shut down of several main roads and stations such as A8 road and Buchanan Street subway station. Many homes on Arran and the mainland faced power outage due to the storms in March 2013 leading to shut down of power lines costing £197M and almost three years to repair. The late winter flooding in 2015-2016 caused power outage in Lancaster and washed away three bridges in Cumbria leading to access difficulties for some villages.

These events highlight that critical infrastructure (CI) networks do not exist in isolation, in fact, they are highly interconnected. CI’s interdependency is not a new notion, the growing population and rapid developments has raised demands for more and better services (using technology), leading to increased pressure on CI for more connectivity and hence, complexity. On other hand, the aforementioned pressures along with rapid climate change have exacerbated the risk of failure associated to this high level of connectivity. Therefore, there is an increasing need for better management of these interactions and interdependencies.1

Cascading failures are the root causes of most large-scale CI network service outages leading to growing and amplification of consequences. This challenge can also affect CI’s service restoration rate and consequently reduce their resilience in coping with emerging threats. In line with this, with growing investments on infrastructure resilience by CI asset owners and operators, understanding and coordinating these connections becomes considerably important across the sector. Therefore, it is crucial for CI asset owners and operators to have a shared and common understanding of their interdependent assets, their type and level of interactions with other networks and their interdependencies. Hence, any lack of/ineffective consideration of primary and ‘n-ary’ connections and the implication of the interdependency-induced failures, presents a great challenge in understanding system behaviour.

Creation of common understanding of interdependent networks behaviour requires a great deal of data sharing across the whole networks. This emphasises the importance of incorporating an appropriate ‘shared data management system’ to record and reflect on failure scenarios that are induced by interdependent assets. In the absence of ‘willingness for data sharing’ by CI asset operators, any innovation to create shared platforms/decision-making systems for better management of interdependent assets will not succeed.

Furthermore one of the barriers to enhanced management of interdependent networks, is the lack of adequate numerical models by which interconnected networks’ performance could be evaluated in different spatial and temporal failure scenarios. These data-driven models are quite challenging to build and in the absence of a robust and guaranteed access to a ‘data sharing strategy’, they will not succeed.

Moreover, a current challenge faced by critical infrastructure (CI) asset owners and operators is the lack of a robust resilience-informed business planning and management system in response to interdependent assets’ failures in particular due to low-probability/high-impact hazards. This system primarily needs synergy amongst the whole CI sectors to overcome their abovementioned challenges in order to make this happen.

Nevertheless, there is an opportunity in every challenge. They can create opportunities for growth, innovation and different thinking for improved management of interdependency-induced failures in CI networks facing the emerging challenges. Failure of interdependent assets is a shared challenge for all CI asset owners, and sooner or later they need to find a way to tackle this problem in order to reduce the vulnerability of their systems to failure. This can only happen by creating an opportunity for dialogue, partnership and collaboration. In fact partnership and collaboration is the key step and the only solution for moving forward to tackle interdependency challenges more effectively in CI networks.

Collaborations can lead to agreed strategies for data sharing that potentially can transform the whole CI management. They can support the development of novel and innovate solutions for more effective use of technology to create computer models to evaluate complex and interdependent networks. These models later can help asset operators to better understand of the type and level of interdependent networks’ interactions and the system behaviour in different scenarios. Additionally, integrated resilience and vulnerability-informed Decision Support System (DSS) could be developed to identify and map interdependent network vulnerable components and introduce adaptive capacities accordingly. This is of particular importance as CI owners and managers are investing more and more every day on improving the resilience of their assets in response to extreme environmental hazards.

In summary, ‘shared challenges’ can create an opportunity for co-creation of ‘shared interventions’ (a notion that was proposed in the NERC-funded project RV-DSS by Dr Donya Hajializadeh (PI) and Dr Maryam Imani (Co-I)) by which interdependent CI networks can be more effectively managed. The shared intervention notion can be used in anticipating interdependency-induced failure scenarios, perceiving and addressing them in a collaborative manner with other infrastructure networks and more innovation shared recovery strategies to promote the resilience of CI networks. This understanding can also create opportunities for infrastructure decision-makers to optimise their intervention strategies. Ultimately, this can lead to effective response and coordination among decision- makers responsible for rescue, recovery, and restoration services.

Finally, in addition to CI asset owners and operators, other stakeholders such as emergency services, local authorities, public and communities will benefit from a dynamic and integrated CI interdependency management system.

In the NERC-funded project, RV-DSS, the team (Dr Donya Hajializadeh (PI) and Dr Maryam Imani (Co-I)), developed a novel framework for building a resilience and vulnerability-informed decision support framework (i.e. RV-DSS). This framework provided potential means of communicating interdependency-induced challenges and potential benefits of considering interdependencies in streamlining strategies for three chosen CI networks (Water, Transport, Energy).

Author:  Dr Maryam Imani, Senior Lecturer in Civil Engineering, School of Engineering and the Built Environment, Anglia Ruskin University

Acknowledgment: This work is conducted as part of the project funded by Natural Environment Research Council under NE/R008973/1 grant number. The authors also would like to acknowledge project industry collaborates, Transport Scotland, Scottish Water, Scottish and Southern Energy and Atkins for their kind and constant support, constructive advice and full engagement throughout the project. The authors also would like to thank project research assistant Mr Vasos Christodoulides in assisting in development of the web-based tool and Dr Lakshmi Rajendran and Dr Carlos Jimenez Bescos for their advices during the initial stages of the project.

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