UCL Global


UCL collaborates with Toronto to address infrastructure provision in global cities

Academics at the two institutions have teamed up to address the ‘need for speed’ in the delivery of urban infrastructure

Dr Dan Durrant  with U of T academics

9 April 2019

In 2017, Dr Dan Durrant (UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning) received funding through the UCL-Toronto Strategic Partner Funds. This joint seed-funding scheme has been designed to encourage academic collaboration between the two institutions.

Dr Durrant is working with Professors Shoshanna Saxe and Matti Siemiatycki from the University of Toronto to look at the ‘need for speed’ in the delivery of urban infrastructure.

A global concern

Policymakers face persistent calls to rapidly increase investment in infrastructure. For example, one leading consultancy, McKinsey, claims there is currently a $3.3 trillion per year global investment gap in infrastructure finance, a figure that rises further if meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals is taken into account. These deficits are often presented as stunting economic growth, exacerbating social inequality and holding back action on climate change.

“We realised that some of the concerns about the time it takes to deliver infrastructure were common to London and Toronto and as we've started to look more broadly at this we’ve realised that, actually, it’s a global concern,” says Dr Durrant.

He explains that there is a perception not only that infrastructure takes too long to deliver but that the time spent is often in some way unjustified. Yet the ‘need for speed’ in delivering urban infrastructure creates pressures that can have negative consequences.

Similarities and differences

By bringing together experts with backgrounds in social science and engineering from both cities, the researchers hope to identify the pressures created in infrastructure planning and delivery. To do this, they have undertaken a census of major projects worth over £500 million in London and $500 million in Toronto.  

“We've found that there are both similarities and differences in regards to infrastructure challenges in the UK and in Canada,” says Professor Saxe.

“One of the things that we've been surprised to learn about London is the different ways in which infrastructure is part of the public conversation. In Toronto, we talk about infrastructure all the time in the press, it’s a campaign issue, it’s part of the public discourse and is a widespread frustration, whereas infrastructure seems to be picked up in the public conversation a little bit later in the process in the UK.”

“I think what's been interesting is this has been an example of how a partnership gels between different communities and people – both on different sides of the ocean but also from different disciplines,” adds Professor Siemiatycki.

“We’ve been able to use that difference to our benefit, by coming up with new ways of thinking about the projects in both technical terms, about how time plays out, but also in a more theoretical conceptualisation of how time is perceived and seen in these big projects.” 

Diagnosing the cause of infrastructure delays

The researchers hope that the project’s findings will have positive implications for policymakers globally, providing insight into how to speed up projects but also make them more efficient and democratic.

Contrary to expectations, they have found that infrastructure delays are likely to be the result of informal rather than formal processes, including political debate about priorities and funding for transport infrastructure. 

Much of the conversation in Toronto about how to speed up infrastructure delivery tends to focus on cutting red tape and planning permissions. But the researchers point out that evidence shows that political shifts in project priorities and debates about how to fund large projects play the largest role in delaying big transport projects in Toronto.

“When we started this conversation about infrastructure and the potential for delay, we were picking up on a narrative that there was too much formal process – such as environmental assessments and consultations – that projects had to go through before they could be built,” says Professor Saxe.

“We've found that it’s not the formal process that’s slow, it’s the informal process that often takes a really long time. That was a surprise and I think an important insight about how we deliver infrastructure.”

A broader political context

The researchers plan to look further at the broader politics surrounding infrastructure. They are interested in gauging how political contexts can delay or speed up different types of projects.

In particular, they point to the link between populism and narratives about speed.

“We’re interested in trying to understand whether governments that come in with a mandate to get stuff done actually create faster outcomes. Or do they run into the same type of challenges or perhaps different types of challenges that ultimately lead to the same delayed outcomes as we've seen historically,” explains Professor Siemiatycki.

“I think we've realised that this is just the beginning, that actually there's a lot more to talk about and a lot of other themes that we can bring out,” he adds.

“We’re keen to be engaging with policymakers to take this work out of our labs, out of academia, and go and work with colleagues in professional practice to make this work have an impact.”

Benefits of seed funding

Professor Siemiatycki explains that one of the benefits of the seed funding is the opportunity it has provided for face-to-face meetings.

“I think what our project proves is that by getting people together in person you can come up with insights that you wouldn’t get if you were just working on your own and communicating over email,” he explains.

“We could have done a lot of this remotely and over Skype, but it wouldn’t have had the staying power and I don't think the ideas would have been as deep and as meaningful… The funding from the two universities helped get that started in a way that I don’t think we would have been able to do otherwise.”