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Strategic intent and the management of infrastructure systems



Change log


Blom, Carron Margaret 


Infrastructure is presenting significant national and global challenges. Whilst often seen as performing well, infrastructure tends to do so against only limited terms of reference and short-term objectives. Given that the world is facing a new infrastructure bill of ~£40T, improving the benefits delivered by existing infrastructure is vital (Dobbs et al., 2013).

This thesis investigates strategic intent and the management of infrastructure systems; how factors such as organisational structure and business practice affect outcomes and the ways in which those systems — not projects — are managed. To date, performance has largely been approached from the perspective of project investment and/or delivery, or the assessment of latent failures arising from specific shocks or disruptive events (e.g. natural disaster, infrastructure failures, climate change). By contrast, the delivery of system-level services and outcomes across the infrastructure system has been rarely examined. This is where infrastructure forms an enduring system of services, assets, projects, and networks each at different stages of their lifecycle, and affecting one another as they develop, then age. Yet system performance, which also includes societal, organisational, administrative and technical factors, is arguably the level relevant to, and the reality of, day-to-day public infrastructure management.

This research firstly investigated industry perceptions in order to test and confirm the problem: the nub of which was the inability to fully deliver appropriate and relevant infrastructure outcomes over the long term. Three detailed studies then explored the reasons for this problem through different lenses; thereby providing an evidence-base for a range of issues that are shared by the wider infrastructure industry.

In confirming its hypothesis that “the strategic intent and the day-to-day management of infrastructure systems are often misaligned, with negative consequences for achieving the desired long-term infrastructure system outcomes”, this research has increased our understanding of the ways in which that misalignment occurs, and the consequences that result. It found those consequences were material, and frequently not visible within the sub-system accountable for the delivery of those outcomes.

That public infrastructure exists, not in its own right, but to be of benefit to society, is a central theme drawn from the definition of infrastructure itself. This research shows that it is not enough to be focused on technical outcomes. Infrastructure needs to move beyond how society interacts with an asset, to the outcomes that reflect the needs, beliefs, and choices of society as well as its ability to respond to change (aptitude).

Although the research has confirmed its hypothesis and three supporting propositions, the research does not purport to offer ‘the solution’. Single solutions do not exist to address the challenges facing a complex adaptive system such as infrastructure. But the research does offer several system-oriented sense-making models at both the detailed and system-level. This includes the probing methodology by way of a diagnostic roadmap. These models aim to assist practitioners in managing the transition of projects, assets, and services into a wider infrastructure system, their potential, and in (re)orienting the organisation to the dynamic nature of the system and its societal imperative.




Guthrie, Peter


Infrastructure, Complex adaptive system, Public administration, Infrastructure management, asset management, sustainability, Resilience, Infrastructure fitness, System stewardship, New Zealand, Land Transport, Systems thinking, Public policy, Strategy, Benefit, Engineering, governance, management, new public management, OPEX, Road smoothness, comfort, Sense-making, Lifecycle, whole of life, trans-disciplinary research, mixed method research, case study, action research, contemporaneous research, deep dive, organisation, organisational research, auckland transport, transport, public transport, policy, benefit management, performance, outcome, system of system


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Anguillid Consulting Engineers and Scientists Ltd, New Zealand Transport Agency, Auckland Transport, Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge University Engineering Department (Ford of Britain Trust), and DR R McDowall.