Academics come to ‘Anytown’: building behavioural factors into an infrastructure failure simulation.

Academics come to ‘Anytown’: building behavioural factors into an infrastructure failure simulation.

By Professor John Preston

In the event of a failure on part of the critical infrastructure (electricity, water, gas and telecommunications for example) very little is known concerning how the general public might react.  Would they behave calmly and rationally or would they engage in panic buying and rioting? 

Drawing on government plans and case studies from the UK, Japan, Germany, the US and New Zealand, the ESRC project Threats to infrastructure is producing a body of academic knowledge to help policy makers and practitioners to plan for such an event. 

The major findings of the project to date are:-

  • Countries have very different approaches to how they engage with the public in an infrastructure failure. For example, In the UK information is top down and didactic, whereas in Japan a community, lifelong learning approach is adopted.
  • Individuals largely engage in pro-social behaviour, for instance, helping their neighbours and even strangers. Even in profound failures of the infrastructure there is no evidence of panic or rioting.
  • Such pro- social behaviour can lead to conflict with the authorities. For example, individuals might borrow generators and resources, planning to bring them back at a later date.

In order to bring these findings into practice, academics from the project at the University of East London (Professor John Preston, Dr. Kaori Kitagawa and Dr. Charlotte Chadderton) joined forces with London Resilience in enhancing their ‘Anytown’ simulations on infrastructure failure in June 2014 to include behavioural factors.   These simulations, conducted with the emergency services and public and private sector stakeholders, considered the impact of a gas and telecommunications failure in the fictional province of ‘Anytown’.  

By bringing insights, from around the world, about community response to ‘Anytown’, academics and practitioners were able to work together to consider a robust model of infrastructure failure and response.  The simulation showed that an altruistic and pro-social community could be both a blessing and a curse in the event of an infrastructure failure.   Although the public would positively look after vulnerable people, their desire to improvise and find creative solutions could cause potential safety risks, particularly in a gas supply failure.  By anticipating such reactions, companies and the emergency services can adapt their plans to build in public response.

For further information about the project please contact the Principal Investigator, Professor John Preston, via email at

John Preston is a PaCCS Leadership Fellow and Professor of Education in the Cass School of Education, University of East London.