Wednesday, 2 May 2018

MSc Infrastructure and Development: the new course explained

The School of the Built Environment (SBE) is introducing a new postgraduate course for September 2018:
MSc Infrastructure and Sustainable Development. I had a chat with Emma Wragg, subject leader for the new course and asked her some questions about her background and why the new course has been set up. First of all, I asked her to sum up the MSc in one sentence:

This is the ideal course for people looking to access broader/more senior career opportunities
working in urban development planning, particularly if they are looking for a significant practice based element and teaching delivered by both academics and practitioners in industry.

Emma Wragg, subject leader for the MSc Infrastructure and Sustainable Development

And here are her answers to the rest of my questions:

How did you find your way into Planning?
My first career was as a solicitor, working first in London and then the Middle East focused on
commercial property and finance. I decided on a career change when we moved back to the UK and signed up for the MSc Planning in Developing and Transitional Regions at Oxford Brookes. I have always had an interest in urban change in African cities, having lived for a long time on the Copperbelt in Zambia. The MSc was hugely inspiring, and I found myself back in Zambia after the MSc embarking on a PhD focused on housing markets in unplanned settlements. The experience of the PhD was enough to get me hooked on academia, so on returning from Zambia I started teaching.

What do you enjoy most about your subject?
I love my job! I found myself telling my daughter last week that I thought I had the perfect job. I am
passionate about how we make better more inclusive cities and teaching allows you to share your
passion. University teaching is also extremely rewarding - it’s hugely creative, interactive and at
Brookes you have the added benefit of learning with students from all over the world. I am not sure
whether there are many other jobs where you have an excuse to be constantly researching change
in your field and learning new teaching technologies which didn’t exist when I was at University.

What exactly is Infrastructure Planning?
We can’t live in cities without infrastructure - it underpins human wellbeing, wealth creation, and environmental sustainability. We need it to access water, sanitation, energy, the internet; but it is also about the homes, transport, schools, open space and the community facilities we need. Infrastructure planning in a nutshell is about how we identify those needs and provide for them. This makes it seem fairly straightforward but determining ‘what should go where and when’ is a complex political process that can entail major conflicts between different interest groups. It’s not something planners can do alone, good skills in collaborating and negotiating with others are key. Planners need to work closely with communities to identify needs as well as drawing on and influencing the investment strategies and infrastructure programmes of stakeholders across the public and private sectors. Planning may not seem so exciting as construction! Everyone – communities, investors, politicians - is always in a hurry to get to the implementation stage and see things built. However, if we don’t get the planning right, we end up with infrastructure that doesn’t meet peoples’ needs and may do more harm than good. This is exactly what is happening at the moment in many cities in low and middle income countries – there are unprecedented infrastructure investment plans with practically no planning.

Why did SBE decide to start the MSc Infrastructure and Sustainable Development?
The new MSc came about as a result of a collaboration across SBE with practitioners in industry. It responds to the high demand internationally for professionals in infrastructure planning and industry’s requests for MSc courses which include more practical and interdisciplinary skills. It has been a great experience working with practitioners – in development agencies, engineering and planning consultancies and finance banks – to design the content of the course and work out how best to teach it together.

Who is the MSc Infrastructure and Sustainable Development for?
The course is aimed at both students and professionals seeking a career in government, the private sector, NGOs or multilateral and bilateral development agencies in the field of infrastructure planning and international development. It will appeal to undergraduate students who may be thinking of a career in international development and want to acquire vocational skills which are in high demand with employers. The programme has also been carefully designed with flexible online delivery to meet the needs of working professionals who want to enhance their capacity to work in infrastructure planning. The expected destinations of graduates include engineering and planning consultancies working in middle and low-income countries, such as AECOM, ARUP, Mott MacDonald and Atkins; development agencies, e.g. World Bank, UN Habitat, DIFD, USAID; local government planning authorities in low and middle- income countries and NGOs including Oxfam, Care International and WaterAid. Putting it more succinctly, I would say the course will be relevant to anyone interested in shaping environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive cities in low and middle income countries!

How is the MSc Infrastructure and Sustainable Development taught?
The structure of the MSc provides a flexible pattern of study that allows students to study the programme full time over an academic year or part-time in open-learning mode (online) over two years. Students can start either in September or January and easily switch between open-learning
and full-time modes of study. The course is taught by an interdisciplinary team of academics and practitioners from private practice, development agencies and the public sector with direct personal experience of planning and delivering infrastructure programmes in development contexts. We have taken this collaborative approach to teaching to give students an authentic and current learning experience. For this same reason we also make use of Problem Based Learning (PBL) to support students in developing key skills in problem solving and decision making. This is achieved through working on a variety of real-life case studies drawn from around the world.

How does the MSc Infrastructure and Sustainable Development fit together?
The programme consists of 4 compulsory modules, plus training in research methods and a major
piece of student research. Core teaching on sustainable development, governance, finance and programme planning is designed to provide both critical theoretical perspectives and practical skills.
These include both infrastructure appraisal methods and approaches to programme design and evaluation. To develop these skills, the course includes a core practice-based module where students can experiment with and test approaches through the design of their own programme. There is also an international field trip in the Easter break which aims to provide students with a deeper understanding of the role of governance in achieving equitable infrastructure delivery.

Find out more about the MSc Infrastructure and Sustainable Development
You can follow this link to the course page on the University’s website. And for more information, you can contact Emma Wragg on

And finally, Emma explains why the MSc Infrastructure and Sustainable Development is focused on cities in the low income and middle income countries:

The focus is on the Global South although the content of the course tackles challenges which are
relevant to many cities in the world. The emphasis on the Global South is a reflection of the extreme
shortage of trained professionals with the right skills to respond to the infrastructure challenge in these regions. Moreover, the need for infrastructure planning is particularly acute with ramifications
for poverty alleviation, climate change and environmental sustainability.

To put it in context, the world’s urban population will increase by 60% over the next 30 years, from 3.6 billion to 6.3 billion, and 95% of this growth will take place in low and middle income countries.
This rapid urbanisation has been happening without adequate investment in infrastructure and basic
services, with particularly severe consequences for those living in low income and unplanned
settlements. It’s an alarming statistic, but about 52% of the urban fabric we need to respond to this
projected urban growth is still to be built! To achieve the 1st Sustainable Development Goal of
ending poverty by 2030 this must respond not just to new urban growth but the estimated 1 billion
urban dwellers who currently live without access to basic services.

How this is going to be achieved in low and middle income countries is an enormous challenge – we
no longer have the supplies of energy and materials needed to roll out sufficient infrastructure using
conventional approaches. Even if we did, there is still the issue of the impact all this city building is
having on ecosystems and climate change. Cities account for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions and
so getting this new infrastructure right will be critical in whether the world locks itself into a high or
low carbon growth trajectory over the next 15 years. This requires a step change in our approach to
infrastructure planning and this course will be one of the first in the UK to deliver this !

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