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Using population data to inform infrastructure investment



So many of the services that we all take for granted – water, digital connectivity, transport, or energy – require  huge amounts of planning to get right.

Because the systems underpinning these services are so complex, the business of making decisions about where to focus investment requires sophisticated analytical support.

This is where the MISTRAL programme, delivered by the UK Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC), is proving invaluable. ITRC brings together seven UK universities, including Leeds, dedicated to improving the performance of infrastructure systems.  MISTRAL is helping utility companies, engineers and government organisations to understand the risks and benefits of different infrastructure investment approaches.

Key to the delivery of any service is understanding how populations will change and grow, and this is where Leeds Institute for Data Analytics plays a role. A team comprising Nik Lomax, Andrew Smith and Mark Birkin, are producing highly detailed projections of population and household growth, based on sources such as the UK Census and the Land Registry.

The team use microsimulation techniques to prepare population estimates at the level of individual households. This information is provided to researchers within MISTRAL’s different modelling teams who can interrogate it to inform different scenarios.

ITRC has developed the world’s first national infrastructure systems model (NISMOD), which is helping governments and business to understand interdependencies and vulnerabilities in our infrastructure systems. NISMOD offers a window onto the provision of key services and also provides ‘what if’ insights, taking account of how our social, economic and physical environment might change in the future.

Led by the University of Oxford, MISTRAL is combining expertise from different disciplines to discover how infrastructure will perform under a range of future scenarios, and allowing decision-makers to test infrastructure policy and investment options. Information about likely changes to population, the use of new technologies, or the impacts of climate change are invaluable in assessing the long-term resilience of the UK’s infrastructure.

 “The information that we’re producing enables the teams to anticipate levels of demand for different services given a range of possible future scenarios,” explains Dr Lomax. “We can provide projections for lots of different scenarios in specific geographic areas. For example changing economic conditions or housing supply in a particular town or suburb will dictate population size and composition.

“We can deliver realistic models of these scenarios that enable the different infrastructure teams to make accurate assessments of where investment is most needed to design and run modern and sustainable services.”

MISTRAL researchers are already working closely with more than 50 partners, including infrastructure providers such as the National Grid and Network Rail, as well as investors, consultancies and policy bodies such as the National Infrastructure Commission and the Environment Agency.

Jacqui Cotton, Principal Scientist in the Environment Agency’s Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Research and Development team, explains: “We’re working with MISTRAL researchers at LIDA because we need to understand where and how to plan our investment to effectively address future flood risks, and also how to tailor our services to meet the changing demographic of those at risk.”