The Value of Systemically Resilient Infrastructure Systems

This article is the part of a series of op-eds from leading voices in the engineering community, addressing engineering action on sustainability, resilience, and climate change.
Author: Dr Tom Dolan, UKCRIC Senior Research Fellow and C-DICE Postgraduate Research Fellow, Infrastructure Systems Institute, CEGE, University College London

This article was inspired by the opportunities to attend the UNDRR High-Level Meeting on the Midterm Review of the Sendai Framework (MTR SF), present at an ICSI-led side event at the Risk Reduction Hub, the integration of recent work on Principles for Resilient Infrastructure into the MTR SF, and the resonance of UKCRIC’s Scientific Missions to UNDRR work.


In this short article, I share my latest thinking on the value of systemically resilient infrastructure systems as a foundation upon which wider societal resilience can be built.

The Systemic Resilience of an infrastructure system[i][ii] relates to the frequency, scale, intensity and duration with which it is disrupted by the impacts of resilience challenges[1]. All aspects of modern life are enabled by infrastructure systems. The systemic resilience of those infrastructure systems deserves greater attention.

We know that – all else equal – households, communities, villages, towns, cities, nations, societies, and economies that are enabled by highly resilient infrastructure systems are disrupted less frequently, on a smaller scale, with lower intensity and for shorter durations than those enabled by less resilient systems. Additionally, by buffering the communities they serve against the disruptive impacts of resilience challenges, highly resilient infrastructure systems can initiate a virtuous cycle. Conversely, low-resilience infrastructure systems can initiate a downward spiral.[iii]

Therefore, a policy or investment that enhances or maintains the systemic resilience of any infrastructure system is simultaneously one that sustains or enhances the prosperity of the society and economy enabled or served by that system. Whereas, choosing to underinvest in the resilience of infrastructure is a false economy that will ultimately undermine the feasibility of realising all other strategic objectives. In short, investments in, and policies for systemically resilient infrastructure systems ultimately enhance societal resilience.

Therefore, infrastructure systems can, and must, play a significant role in ensuring the societies that they serve and enable are productive, prosperous, equitable, sustainable, net zero, resilient, and consistent with the Sendai Framework principles of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR).

However, we consistently underestimate the true societal and economic value of infrastructure systems.

We do this because, for at least two reasons, the sum of revenue generated by the sale of the products and services produced by infrastructure systems – our usual proxy for value – will always underestimate the total societal value enabled by infrastructure. Firstly, to ensure affordability, infrastructure products and services are commonly price-regulated or provided for free at point of use. Secondly, such a valuation only includes value directly captured, it excludes the economic and societal multiplier effects that infrastructure systems make possible when the products and services they deliver enable economic and societal activity that could not otherwise occur.

As a consequence, we:

  • underinvest in infrastructure systems (across all lifecycle stages);
  • underestimate the societal and economic value of systemically resilient infrastructure systems;
  • underinvest in enhancing their resilience.

This is compounded by a number of interrelated tendencies:

  • the tendency to focus on tackling resilience challenges at the point of impact, rather than systemically targeting resilience challenges at source;
  • the tendency to mistake resilience investment for expenditure, leading to the erroneous perception that resilience is a cost, rather than a source of value;
  • the tendency to focus resilience discourse on the question of ‘who pays?’, rather than the more pertinent questions of identifying the systemic causes of low resilience, evaluating the opportunity costs of allowing low resilience, understanding the potential beneficiaries and the total value of increased resilience.

Principles for Resilient Infrastructure

The Principles for Resilient Infrastructure, the accompanying Handbook, and their integration into the Sendai Framework as part of the MTR, represent significant steps toward more resilient, DRR consistent, future societies.

The resilience of infrastructure systems has been recognised as a key area of action to support the implementation of the Sendai Framework. As such, Member States and stakeholders must place the Principles for Resilient Infrastructure at the heart of developing infrastructure systems, both in upgrading existing systems and integrating risk assessments and data into future projects. 

(UNDRR MTR Sendai Framework: p104)

Unlocking Further Progress

However, further progress will require a change in the mindset from which current systems goals, rules, structures, and processes are derived[iv]. New mindsets regarding the societal value of systemically resilient infrastructure systems and the role of resilient infrastructure systems as enablers of societal and economic resilience – and more broadly the qualities an economy requires to enable long term productivity and prosperity, and the role infrastructure systems can play in supporting these – are all needed.

These new mindsets, coupled with aligned approaches to governance, decision-making, regulation and accounting can transform the purpose of infrastructure from underpinning economic growth to creating the right systemic conditions to enable the emergence of economies and societies that possess the qualities we desire.

Establishing a Net Resilience Gain Culture

A Net Resilience Gain (NRG) culture, supported by greater systemic understanding, is urgently needed. An NRG culture is one in which:

  • Systemic resilience is regarded as an essential systemic quality and a prerequisite to the realisation of all other societal and economic objectives, and one that all societies and economies must possess.
  • Consideration of the expected impacts of all changes to infrastructure systems (including to governance structures, regulatory frameworks) on the systemic resilience of the system itself and the resilience of the societies and economies they serve is an explicit element of all decision-making processes, at all lifecycle stages. Thus, changes expected to enhance resilience can be prioritised, and those expected to diminish resilience can be avoided.
  • Investment in the systemic resilience of infrastructure systems and DRR are recognised as sources of value, not costs.
  • Infrastructure strategy, governance, regulation, and investment are at the core of resilience strategy.
  • Resilience is integrated into all aspects of societal policy and economic strategy to enable the emergence of a resilient economy and resilient economic growth.

An NRG culture will require greater systemic understanding:

  • Of the value of infrastructure systems, the societal and economic multipliers they create, the true societal and economic cost of disruption/low resilience, the true societal and economic value of minimising disruption to infrastructure systems by enhancing their resilience.
  • That infrastructure systems as complex interdependent systems are intrinsically vulnerable to disruption. Therefore, all the activities and outcomes they enable are deeply interdependent cascading successes[v],vulnerable, in the event of disruption, to cascade, common cause and escalating failures[vi].
  • Of resilience as a quality that can be enhanced or eroded by the actions we choose to take. A quality that has to be prioritised, carefully nurtured and constantly monitored. A quality that can only be sustained if actions that cause it to erode are avoided. Therefore, governance structures that undermine systemic resilience must be updated, and all other actions or processes known, or expected, to diminish resilience must be reviewed or avoided.
  • the societal, economic, and supply chain benefits of tackling low resilience proactively, collectively, collaboratively, continuously at source rather than reactively, responsively at point of impact.
  • Finally, an NRG culture will require a whole-of-government, whole-of-society commitment.

However, it is only by doing all the above that we can truly begin the urgent transition to the type of resilient, equitable, sustainable, net zero infrastructure systems, societies, and global economies that we will need in order to thrive when facing the disruptive impacts of current and future interdependent global challenges.

This article is based upon the authors UKCRIC and C-DICE research supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council [EP/R017727/1]; Research England [C-DICE]; UKCRIC; and the UCL Infrastructure Systems Institute.

[1] Where the term resilience challenge refers to ‘all sustainability challenges, actions, events, decisions or trends, which have the potential to impede the production, or availability, of a predictable flow of one or more infrastructure products or services (IP&S); and thus disrupt the Normal operations of National Infrastructure.i

[i] Based upon Dolan, T. (2021). A Systemic Perspective on a Resilient Net Zero Future. Frontiers in Built Environment. doi:10.3389/fbuil.2021.752765

[ii] Dolan, Tom. (2021). Resilient Infrastructure Systems. In The intelligent nation: How to organise a country (pp. 116–123). Routledge.

[iii] Adapted from: Successful Cities Rely on Resilient Infrastructure

[iv] Meadows, D. Thinking in Systems: A Primer.

[v] Dolan, T. (2021). A Systemic Perspective on a Resilient Net Zero Future. Frontiers in Built Environment. doi:10.3389/fbuil.2021.752765

[vi] As defined in Rinaldi, S. M., Peerenboom, J. P., & Kelly, T. K. (2001). Identifying, understanding, and analyzing critical infrastructure interdependencies. IEEE Control Systems Magazine, 21(6), 11–25.