Anytown – a place near you with a surprisingly fragile infrastructure

Anytown is a place close to you. It has schools, hospitals, a railway station, municipal headquarters and its own radio station. If you like, it can have a TV station, and perhaps a university too.

You’ll have worked out by now, of course, that Anytown is a scenario. It’s used to explore the responses and interdependencies that might emerge with the failure of one or more infrastructure service.

Anytown is an initiative from the London Resilience team and has focused on 4 workshops; two last year, two this year. Anytown brings together representatives from infrastructure (e.g. telecoms providers, transport organisations), emergency services (e.g. A&E departments, fire and rescue service) and relevant others such as policy-makers and academics.

I’ve now attended two Anytown meetings, and while they focus on the ‘disaster response’ end of adaptation, they still provide a useful opportunity to investigate the ripple effect of infrastructure failure. At the most recent meeting, working in groups we considered the impacts of a breakdown of telecoms/data, with a separate session on gas supply failure.

It’s easy to see that infrastructure is very interdependent, with services usually requiring a secure energy supply, sometimes the provision of water and very often reliant on remote sensors and control systems.

But one of the big lessons I’ve taken from the Anytown exercise is that it’s important to look beyond the utilities. As soon as a failure starts to lead to, for example, school closures, then the knock on effects are immense, as parents start to take time off to look after their young children. Similarly, transport disruption means that staff aren’t able to get to their workplaces, and for some organisations that’s a real problem: you can’t change a dressing remotely!

The recent Anytown meeting also offered a more positive vision. We heard from Prof John Preston, Dr Charlotte Chadderton and Kaori Kitagawa from the University of East London who are looking at the community response to critical infrastructure failure. The experiences of people who lived through the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand and the tsunami in Japan, both in 2011, suggests that a the public has a tremendous ability to self-organise and to respond flexibly to the immediate loss of infrastructure. Their research suggests that populations mobilise and share through a variety of communications to identify useful information, direct volunteers and modify behaviour.

Anytown is a great way to think about responses to infrastructure crises, and this can and should help academics, policy makers and practitioners to investigate ways to prepare for and minimise a range of risks.

Posted: 30 June 2014