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How to make critical infrastructure resilient

The corona epidemic has subjected areas of our critical infrastructure to severe strain, raising the issue of how we should be designing infrastructure to withstand the unexpected and, indeed, if this is even possible. We invited three RISE experts from various disciplines to discuss the issue of robust critical infrastructure: is the best solution necessarily a system designed to withstand ‘everything’?

“Critical infrastructure could be understood to be an asset, system or part thereof located in Member States, which is essential for the maintenance of vital societal functions, health, safety, security, economic or social well-being of people, such as power plants, transport networks or government networks, and the disruption or destruction of which would have a significant impact in a Member State as a result of the failure to maintain those functions.”

This is how the European Union defines critical infrastructure. In Sweden, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) has prepared criteria for whether a societal function or infrastructure is to be considered important or critical; however, criticality can be highly situation-dependent.

– “We talk about critical infrastructure as if the disappearance of its function affects vital societal functions,” says Johan Sjöström, researcher in fire technology at RISE. “At the same time, peoples’ opinions about what constitutes vital societal functions and what we can accept living without can be changed very quickly.”

– “If we look generally at how a society should function in the type of creeping crisis we are currently facing, in which perhaps countries shut down and we a forced into isolation, then the focus will be on our ability to be self-sufficient, for example in terms of food or medicines,” says Emma Lundin, project manager within urban water management at RISE. “Suddenly, we find that practically all infrastructure is critical, just like our ability to circulate resources within the country.”

Stockpiling not the solution

During the pandemic, voices have been raised calling for the reintroduction of stockpiling, a practice that was discontinued in Sweden in the early 2000s. Helene Degerman, project manager within societal security at RISE, is dubious about the benefits this would create.

– “The problem with stockpiling is of course, what should we be stockpiling? We just don’t know; it is unforeseeable because the next crisis will not look the same. In order to create resilience, we must promote the capacity to adapt. No crisis is predictable at all stages; so, to cope with it, we need to build on attributes such as everyday creativity and acumen so that crisis and everyday life do not appear so different from one another. This is hard to achieve if our operations are bound by overly strict procedures.”

– “If we simply look at recent events, in many regards we have proven to be extremely flexible and adaptable,” says Johan Sjöström. “Just look at the field hospitals built in Älvsjö and Gothenburg in an incredibly short time. It is possible.”

We need to become a little more accustomed to change

Learning from times of crisis

In order to achieve the adaptability required to create resilient critical infrastructure, we need to learn from the adaptions made to previous crises in terms of the actions taken and what has worked, and then reinforce this in everyday life.

– “As a society and as individuals, we need to become a little more accustomed to change,” says Johan Sjöström.

– “Yes, we are used to working based on scenarios,” says Helene Degerman. “We need to build our ability to deal with surprises so that the transition isn’t too slow because we were caught with our pants down. We need to learn to make spontaneous decisions.”

Perhaps in a circular system we are more accustomed to thinking flexibly

The system requires overcapacity

A resilient system also requires a certain level of built-in overcapacity if it is to deal with a necessary transition.

– “In the normal operation of systems or infrastructure, optimisation usually deals with removing anything that isn’t cost-effective, which risks the disappearance of all redundant paths over time,” says Johan Sjöström. “This will have a negative impact on the ability to adapt.”

– “Healthcare is an example of this kind of non-resilient system; even before the pandemic, there was limited scope for high-quality care with adequate resources, meaning that adapting to the crisis required shutting down other operations, with planned care postponed and an inability to keep all of the system’s functions intact,” says Emma Lundin. “This has meant rearranging large parts of the organisation in order to free up the necessary resources.”

– “Of course, the question is what we mean when we talk about optimisation,” says Helene Degerman. “It is often, erroneously in my opinion, equated with cutbacks when instead we should perhaps be examining linear versus circular flows when discussing optimisation. We fail to take account of the bigger picture when we think optimisation; it is extremely difficult to come up with circular ideas in a linear system. We are shaped by the system we have today.”

So, would a circular system have been better suited to dealing with the unexpected, such as the current crisis? According to Helene Degerman, that is not necessarily the case:

– “There are other aspects that make an organisation good at dealing with the unexpected but the more that can be factored in, the better.”

– “At the same time, in terms of resources we become more resilient in a circular system,” says Emma Lundin. “Take transport as an example; we have long been dependent on the car and fossil fuels – just look at the United States. In Sweden, especially in cities, we have constructed redundant systems that are not dependent on one energy source and we can use various means of transport such as bicycles, electric scooters, public transport or walking.”

– “Perhaps in a circular system we are more accustomed to thinking flexibly, identifying alternative resources, and are therefore better at adapting to crises,” says Helene Degerman. “We just need to make sure we have a high tolerance for making decisions in a situation of complete uncertainty – that it doesn’t create problems down the line.”

– “Irrespective of the system, if we are to evaluate resilience we need to know what to evaluate,” says Emma Lundin. “Looking at healthcare, for example, the system has proven resilient from a coronavirus patient’s perspective but less so from the perspective of other patients or staff.”

The notion that we can withstand anything won’t help us

Reality has no regard for administrative boundaries

In a crisis, the difference between the administrative division of our critical systems and the real-world division is thrown into sharp relief; while the systems may be clearly divided administratively, in reality they are interlinked and must work together. Real-world problems and crises often cross administrative boundaries.

– “Even if the various elements of our critical infrastructure have a major impact on one another, it would have been difficult to build a model for the control of this highly complex system in its entirety; so, from an operational perspective it probably works to have this critical infrastructure divided into units with relative autonomy,” says Johan Sjöström.

– “On a project we worked on related to drinking water supply in Portugal, it became obvious that there is strength in providing individuals in various organisations with ownership of decisions on concrete action as and when the need arises,” says Emma Lundin, “but it does demand good communication when we are not in a crisis – a good structure to fall back on.”

– “In the project Emma mentions, it was also fairly clear that short decision-making paths were a success factor,” says Helene Degerman. “Decision-makers at a higher level used people out in the organisation to create their own image of the situation, trusting the knowledge and judgement of their staff. In large public-sector organisations things often look very different, with information imposed from on high rather than gathered. This makes it much harder to make the right decision.”

So, what should we striving for when building critical infrastructure? Can it be dimensioned to withstand all conceivable future challenges and threat scenarios?

– “Of course not, that’s not possible,” says Johan Sjöström.

– “The notion that we can withstand anything won’t help us,” believes Helene Degerman. “Certainly, we need to dimension both systems and organisations to cope with certain possible scenarios but, above all, we need to ensure that we have the ability to deal with the unforeseen, because we will inevitably need to.”

– “It may be important to have systems that are affected by minor crises, so that we are forced to fix them and become used to doing so,” says Johan Sjöström. “Otherwise we risk finding ourselves at a loss when faced with major events.”

– “Yes, we need to get to know our systems in everyday operation and then make our own decisions and remain flexible. Then things will run more smoothly in times of crisis,” concludes Helene Degerman.

Emma Lundin

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Emma Lundin


+46 10 516 63 31

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Johan Sjöström

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Johan Sjöström


+46 10 516 58 55

Read more about Johan