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The buildings of today may not be fit for the weather of tomorrow. The increasing rapidity at which our climate is changing means that many designers must now build with the expectation that significant environmental change within the lifetime of a building could become the norm. In order to ensure the safety and stability of our infrastructure this must be taken into consideration, but to design for every possible threat could be prohibitively expensive. The question then—how do we plan for the unknown?

Matteo Pozzi and Peter Adams of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering are helping lay out a road map for designers faced with these tough decisions. Their decision-making model combines infrastructure and climate data readily available, but also takes into account the information expected to be available in the future.

They posit that if projected learning rates could provide a better understanding of the effects and threats of climate change, it may be more sensible to provide a greater degree of flexibility in design. Though more costly than “fixed” designs, this could allow future building or other infrastructure managers more options in adapting infrastructure to the expected changes in climate conditions. Conversely, if there is little reasonable expectation of more climate information being available in the future, designers can more confidently invest in cheaper, fixed designs.

Through modeling the relationship between flexibility in infrastructure design and the rate at which we expect to learn about climate change, this project will provide a valuable tool for urban planners, architects, engineers, and many other infrastructure stakeholders. By trying to provide an accurate vision of the future, they can lower the risk of wasting resources on over-designing against every possible outcome, while limiting the dangers of under-designing. They also plan to assess the value of gathering additional information and how that affects our expected learning rates.

By providing a barometer for our current and expected knowledge, Adams and Pozzi are helping infrastructure designers create more resilient, long-lasting infrastructure for an uncertain future.