UCL Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering


Infrastructure at CEGE: Reflections by Professor Liz Varga

11 March 2020

Professor Liz Varga, Head of the Infrastructure Systems Institute at UCL Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering, reflects on the transition of her infrastructure research.

A gas heating system on the side of a house - lots of pipes.

2019 was a massive year of change. Not only did we transfer to UCL from Cranfield University but we changed faculties; from management to engineering. The latter move to a multi-disciplinary engineering faculty was critical for us not just because our research outputs were already relevant to the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF 2021)’s now combined engineering unit of analysis. An even more important factor in the move was UCL’s proximate stimulation of the breadth and depth of engineering thinking; from environmental and biological sciences, technical and geomatic domains, financial, risk and planning areas, and social, behavioural and cultural sciences. So we transformed the Infrastructure Systems group established in 2017 into the Infrastructure Systems Institute (ISI) at UCL’s Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering Department (CEGE); bringing over all the available staff and students and maintaining contact with past colleagues.

For the 2020s, the ISI has set out the following four themes of global relevance:

  • engineering resilience 
  • sustainable innovation 
  • policy evaluation and assessment 
  • decarbonisation and efficiency 

The themes straddle sectoral research and create a focus on the interdependencies between sectors and systems, concentrating on integrated services and their implications on infrastructure networks. The themes address areas of particular research importance such as black sky outages; emergent failures; trade-offs between safety, performance and resilience; methods, such as digital twins, for better and faster insight; agent-based modelling of recovery and integration of waste in a circular economy; and decision making in autonomous and connected systems, and for distributed renewable resources.

Ongoing project OPTEMIN is realising its ambitions on waste heat recovery and energy efficiency; reducing industrial energy demand by over 15% in two high consuming sectors. New project AGILE is raising numerous challenges and opportunities toward the integration of distributed renewable energy resources, changing views on traditional top down supply. A second tranche of funding was approved for CECAN where we are now working toward a sustainable national centre for policy evaluation across a nexus of systems.

The Coordination Node of the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC) sits beside the ISI in the infrastructure section of CEGE. 2019 has witnessed the building and equipping of most of these ventures. The fourteen founding universities, and new university partners, are co-developing UKCRIC’s missions and spearheading a national effort in infrastructure and cities research.

UKCRIC is a national power house of infrastructure and urban research, funded by capital from both the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) and matched university funding for observatories, laboratories and a data and analytics facility (DAFNI)."

DAFNI itself is a current ISI project witnessing the introduction of local UCL ICT equipment for the purpose of exploiting infrastructure research data sets and models held at STFC, Harwell, by novel business models which engage industry, government and academia in research data as a service. It is also worth mentioning PEARL (Person Environment Activity Research Laboratory), one of the UKCRIC family of laboratories, which will be a unique, cross-disciplinary facility focused on exploring how people interact with their environments. With heavy involvement from CEGE's Centre for Transport Studies, PEARL promises to provide an amazing sensory research laboratory within the municipal area of Barking and Dagenham, London.

We set out our research themes and projects with awareness that the context of research is the continuation of political and economic uncertainty, especially Net Zero demands driving energy transition toward renewables, and increasingly heavy burdens on industry in respect of safety, environmental empathy, interoperability, and reporting. This highlights the strategic importance of an increased awareness of changes in demand and activity, and the creation of fallback positions that deliver continuity of services. Anticipatory and self-healing infrastructure is an emerging theme for 2020. Using multi-channel data feeds, we consider how can system operators at all scales, including home owners, anticipate when demand is likely to be compromised and the cross-sectoral alternatives available to prevent or limit damage; provide interim services; recover; and generally to self-heal at scale. CEGE has invested in two doctoral students at the start of 2020 who competed in a very strong global field of 44 applicants; one will create a master framework and the other a mathematical formulation to explain anticipatory and self-healing infrastructure.

We further expect that digitalisation, automation, artificial intelligence and digital ecosystems will be part of the technical solutions that meet SDGs (sustainable development goals) and sustainable innovation outcomes that do not compromise the environment. Our agent-based skills are continuously extended as we engage with the mathematical validation of models (not just computational), and as we contribute to a general description/ontology and method for integrating infrastructure data. The need for better explanations of emergent failure particularly in large scale infrastructures draws on and develops complexity science, our home discipline, by framing and transferring knowledge from systems similar to infrastructure (see the UCL 2019 reports via the National Infrastructure Commission Resilience Study link below).

We work on all our projects in a trans-disciplinary way, embracing pluralistic insights and views of the world. Our partners in industry, government and academia support us to represent rules of behaviour contributing to socio-technical regimes, and to expose contextual and boundary constraints, which are critical assumptions used in our models to generate our modeling findings.

As we look forward, our focus remains on infrastructure and cities: energy, transport, telecoms, water and waste, as well as the food industry and built environment. These systems provide essential services underpinning the ability of society to thrive whilst also needing major transitions toward sustainability (and negative carbon emissions), given their massive scale and contribution toward waste and pollution.


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  • Caption: 'Complexity' - a complex network of pipes, tubes and fan units on the side of a building in Seoul, South Korea. 
  • Credit: Linh Ha on Unsplash