Improve the sustainability of urban systems and infrastructure

Start application

Apply for funding to develop research networks that will focus on improving the sustainability of urban systems and infrastructure.

You must be:

  • a UK resident
  • based at an eligible research organisation.

You can apply for one of three networks:

  • green infrastructure development linked to blue, brown and grey infrastructure
  • low carbon connected digital infrastructure with considerations between urban and rural environments
  • sustainable urban systems, to become more resilient and adaptable across natural systems and infrastructure.

The total fund is £3.6 million (at 100% FEC). UKRI will fund 80% of the full economic cost.

Your network must start in March 2022 and can last up to 24 months.

Who can apply

Standard UKRI eligibility rules apply.

Network Plus grants are open to:

  • UK higher education institutions
  • research council institutes
  • UKRI-approved independent research organisations
  • eligible public sector research establishments
  • NHS bodies with research capacity.

Guidance on institutional eligibility.

Information on the eligibility of organisations and individuals to receive funding, see the EPSRC guidance for applicants.

You can apply if you are resident in the UK and meet at least one of the criteria below:

  • are employed at the submitting research organisation at a level equivalent to lecturer or above
  • hold a fixed-term contract that extends beyond the duration of the proposed project, and the host research organisation is prepared to give you all the support normal for a permanent employee
  • hold an EPSRC, Royal Society or Royal Academy of Engineering fellowship aimed at later career stages
  • hold fellowships under other schemes (please contact EPSRC to check eligibility, which is considered on a case-by-case basis).

Holders of postdoctoral level fellowships are not eligible to apply for an EPSRC grant.

Individuals wishing to apply and be named as a principal investigator or co-investigator can only be listed on one application (if the applicant is listed as a principal investigator on one application then they cannot be listed on another application as a co-investigator).

Postdoctoral research assistants (PDRAs) cannot act as the lead proposer, but can be named as a recognised researcher if their contract allows.

Organisations are not limited in the number of proposals they can submit to this call. We emphasise, however, that a diverse set of proposals will be funded, and it is unlikely that more than one application will be funded from any single research organisation.

EPSRC, NERC and AHRC encourage all proposals to be from diverse groups of researchers.

We will not accept uninvited resubmissions of projects that have been submitted to UKRI or any other funder.

Submissions to this call will count towards the EPSRC repeatedly unsuccessful applicants policy.

What we're looking for

Synopsis

The Network Plus investment will further strengthen our communities to develop new cross-sector and multidisciplinary academic-led communities that work together to:

  • identify opportunities
  • address complex challenges
  • accelerate solutions-based interventions.

We want to encourage a truly system of systems approach that will involve collaboration and the sharing of knowledge through utilising previous UKRI investments, such as the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC) facilities.

EPSRC, NERC and AHRC are looking to support and evolve the wider infrastructure and urban systems research communities and strengthen the value of our previous investments in this area. We expect successful bids to be cross-disciplinary, engaging across our portfolios.

We are interested in developing interdisciplinary communities with a focus on generating positive impact in addition to minimising negative impacts. We are keen to bring together communities in the UK, including:

  • engineering
  • environmental
  • arts and humanities
  • economic and social research.

This is to address national priorities exemplified and demonstrated at the local or regional level, including:

  • wellbeing
  • social inclusivity
  • community engagement
  • inequalities
  • resilience
  • impacts on communities
  • nature
  • security.

Objectives

We are seeking networks of research leaders (at all levels) who can achieve the following objectives.

Be centred around net zero plus (climate and environmental change)

Bringing together UK capability, to encourage a truly system of systems approach. This will involve promoting collaboration and the sharing of knowledge to treat research in sustainable infrastructure and urban systems holistically.

Strengthen engagement

Strengthen engagement between:

  • researchers
  • policymakers
  • local, regional and national leadership teams
  • relevant research, science and technology, and business groups.

This should encourage collaboration at all levels and provide a unified voice for the research community.

Enhance the UK’s world leading research on sustainable and resilient infrastructure and urban systems

Engaging together to maintain and extend UK leadership in the area and develop our expertise as an export for the international market.

Consideration of routes to levelling up the UK

Bring in regional stakeholders, such as:

  • academia
  • industry: large and small or medium enterprises
  • local leadership or government
  • local community groups.

This is to solve place related research problems and come together to address national overarching challenges.

This should support places across the UK to grow their economy, improve wellbeing and reduce inequalities. We are seeking new collaborations, through wider stakeholder engagement, so that differing issues across the UK can be addressed.

Develop a skills pipeline

Develop a skills pipeline for urban systems and infrastructure research, fostering talent through postdoctoral programmes and industry by encouraging movement between the research and commercial sector.

Early career researchers must play an important role in the Network Plus.

Investment to improve diversity and grow skills

Investment to improve the diversity and grow the capability and skill base of researchers in the infrastructure, urban systems, design and environmental research community and their ability to address whole system challenges through multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches.

Link to UKRI investments

Network Plus proposals should utilise the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC) facilities and other relevant UKRI facilities as best as possible and if appropriate to the planned work. A Network Plus award may build on new opportunities highlighted by previous investments.

Scope

The purpose of Network Plus grants is to enable eligible researchers at UK higher education institutions, research council institutes, UKRI-approved independent research organisations and UKRI approved public sector research establishments to build and develop new multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary research communities focused around a complex challenge.

We expect networks to identify priorities and challenges, and to prepare the ground to be able to respond as a community to the development of new larger funding opportunities should they arise. This might be evidenced through outcomes of:

  • multidisciplinary workshops and meetings
  • development of shared research and innovation agendas
  • insight reports.

Proposals should also consider ways to sustain the networking activity beyond the EPSRC, NERC and AHRC funding period outlined in this opportunity.

The networks should:

  • be a new collaboration
  • aim to form a new multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary research community and identify new research topics and approaches (addressing the sustainable urban systems theme)
  • involve a group with a diverse range of expertise and experience
  • be based in the UK, but may include collaboration with overseas partners
  • demonstrate the added value that EPSRC, NERC, AHRC and any other funding would bring (particularly around maximising value and impact of current UKRI investments, for example UKCRIC facilities)
  • identify a network of research leaders in the space who can be called upon to provide expert advice
  • provide a plethora of important (bottom up driven) research challenges which have undergone some additional testing so that our research community are ready with high-quality proposals to respond to future strategic opportunities, for example, related to UK net zero, UK digital twins and levelling up.

The Network Plus awards could undertake a variety of activities including:

  • workshops
  • events
  • feasibility studies
  • secondments
  • horizon scanning.

It is essential that user and community engagement is considered in the wider network membership, including:

  • regional and national policy makers
  • businesses
  • unitary and other authorities
  • local community groups.

Each proposal must demonstrate evidence of how they will connect with ongoing excellent research in the UK and lead further development of the network. All strands need to ensure they take a whole systems approach to address engineering, environmental and design challenges highlighted by this opportunity.

We expect the funded networks to be collaborative not competitive, they should work together where appropriate (for example, joint workshops). We also expect network representatives to attend knowledge sharing events, organised by EPSRC or others, to share best practice amongst the successful networks.

Throughout the activities of the Network Plus we would expect it to consider equality and diversity issues and reflect different genders and ethnicities as well as representation from different disciplines and organisations, and individuals at varying stages of their career.

We will prioritise multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary proposals and those that involve:

  • policymakers
  • local, regional and unitary authorities
  • businesses
  • other users and intermediaries who can add value and potential for impact.

It is possible for proposals to cross strands where necessary.

Priority strand one: green Infrastructure development linked to blue, brown or grey infrastructure

We seek to transform our understanding and the development of our infrastructure so that it can be sustainable, resilient and adaptable. Our interests in this area include (but are not limited to):

  • infrastructure for future readiness for connected, autonomous world, net-zero energy and resilient to climate change
  • nature-based solutions to support a systems wide approach
  • digitalisation of infrastructure
  • prolonging the life of infrastructure and its value to user communities
  • resource efficiency and embedded emissions of infrastructure
  • ensuring infrastructure that guarantees our energy and water supplies and enables safe and reliable use of road, rail and air transport networks that connect our urban environments and is resilient to a wide range of environmental risks including increasingly extreme weather events and climate change.

Priority strand two: low carbon connected digital infrastructure with considerations between urban and rural environments

A longstanding problem of connectivity between places has been expedited due to recent global challenges. To address this, we seek engineering, environmental, arts and humanities research which is integrated with the systems questions from social and economic research.

Our interests in this area include (but are not limited to):

  • being able to link the digital world to the real world in real time, and to high levels of fidelity (where required)
  • digitalisation to support connectivity across the UK, identifying and addressing gaps in our understanding of infrastructure resilience, whilst also supporting a levelling up agenda to promote a more equitable society
  • the responsible use of sensors, artificial intelligence and controls to enable systems resilience
  • linkage to the work of related initiatives in digital twinning.

Priority strand three: sustainable urban systems

Part of the challenge for sustainable urban systems is in enabling economic growth whilst achieving environmental enhancement. Our interests in this area include (but are not limited to):

  • understanding ecosystem health of existing UK urban environments, drawing on current infrastructures and future technological advances in sensing, observation and modelling
  • advancing understanding of how blue and green spaces in urban areas function and to use this knowledge to determine how to sustainably manage them to increase the functionality, adaptability and resilience of urban areas and the communities which live and work in them, supporting economic growth and societal wellbeing
  • understanding urban climate feedbacks between street, neighbourhood, and larger scale processes
  • developing and testing scalable solutions for net-zero carbon emissions in the built environment, for example preparation toward the creation of urban living laboratories using cutting-edge smart monitoring sensors and ecological theory to look at the trade-offs between biodiversity and ecosystem services and infrastructure
  • building on the opportunity of changes in urban function post-COVID, for example impact on retail and business environments, changes in travel patterns and increased demand for access to green space.

Funding available

We will support costs of building multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary research communities, including:

  • investigator salaries
  • travel and subsistence
  • events
  • workshops
  • secondments
  • horizon scanning
  • feasibility studies and pump priming activities
  • minor equipment
  • administrative support.

Network Plus grants will not fund associated PhD studentships under this opportunity.

We will award 80% of the full economic costs of the project, and your organisation must agree to find the remaining balance. We encourage contributions from external partners which should be included in your proposal.

There is up to:

  • £2,350,000 available from EPSRC
  • £500,000 available from NERC
  • £150,000 available from AHRC.

EPSRC, NERC and AHRC expect to fund in the region of £1,200,000 per strand.

Awards will be made for a 24-month duration.

Projects must start by 1 March 2022.

Requests for equipment will be considered if there is a clear need that cannot be fulfilled using existing equipment. This should be detailed in the case for support.

Any individual equipment must have a maximum value of £400,000 (including VAT). EPSRC will support equipment costs at 80% fEC.

Smaller items of equipment (individually under £10,000) should be requested under consumables (other directly incurred costs). EPSRC will have the final decision on whether to fund equipment requests.

Information on equipment funding.

Funding requested under the ‘directly allocated cost’ heading may include:

Investigators’ salaries

The principal investigator and up to four co-investigators can request funds to cover their salary costs for the time spent on setting up and leading the Network Plus. The salary costs of Network Plus participants should not be included in the proposal and we would not expect these individuals to be co-investigators.

Funding requested under the ‘directly incurred cost’ heading may include:

Travel and subsistence

Travel and subsistence enabling members of the Network Plus to meet together to exchange ideas and expertise. This may include visits by or to experts overseas. This may also include travel and subsistence costs to support secondments. Where possible collaborators should meet their own travel costs.

Administrative support

A sufficient level of administrative support should be requested to help in the coordination and management of the Network Plus and ensure smooth running of the Network Plus. Reasonable costs for monitoring and dissemination of the Network Plus output can also be included.

Organisation of activities

Funding can be requested for costs involved in running activities such as:

  • networking events
  • expert working groups
  • debates
  • virtual discussion forums
  • lectures
  • seminars
  • problem solving workshops.

Applicants are encouraged to think creatively about the range of activities that could support the delivery of the Network Plus goals.

Research

Research activity to support the research strategy developed within the Network Plus. Funds can be requested for PDRA staff, consumables, travel and subsistence and any other costs eligible under ‘directly incurred’ headings. This is likely to include a budget for feasibility studies that can be allocated to researchers at other universities. In this case, applicants will need to think carefully about how this budget will be managed.

We would expect some examples of the types of projects at the application stage, but the research challenges should evolve during the course of the network activities and should be co-created and collaborative in nature.

NERC facilities

The timing of this funding opportunity is shorter than the normal timeframe for requesting the use of NERC services and facilities. However, if NERC services or facilities are needed, then please contact researchfacilities@nerc.ukri.org to discuss your requirements. NERC can liaise directly with the specified service or facility to check if the request can be accommodated.

There is no guarantee that the service or facility will be able to accommodate the request for a technical assessment and quote in the timescale of the funding opportunity.

See the full list of NERC Facilities that require a technical assessment. This excludes:

These services have their own policies for access and costing.

Data management

A UKRI Data Policy must be adhered to, and an outline data management plan produced as part of proposal development. We will pay the data centre directly on behalf of the programme for archival and curation services, but applicants should ensure they request sufficient resource to cover preparation of data for archiving by the research team.

Responsible innovation

Applicants are expected to work within our responsible innovation framework.

How to apply

Expression of interest

Applicants are encouraged to submit an expression of interest by 21 October 2021.

Submit your expression of interest on Smart Survey.

You will receive acknowledgment of receipt from your expression of interest.

Full proposal

You should ensure you are aware of and comply with any internal institutional deadlines that may be in place. You should prepare and submit your proposal using the research councils’ Joint Electronic Submission system (Je-S).

When adding a new proposal, you should go to documents, select ‘new document’, then select:

  • ‘create new document’
  • council: EPSRC
  • document type: standard proposal’
  • scheme: network
  • ‘Sustainable Urban Systems and Infrastructure Network Plus’ on the project details page.

After completing the application, you must ‘submit document’ which will send your application to your host organisation’s administration.

Your host organisation’s administration is required to complete the submission process. You should allow sufficient time for your organisation’s submission process between submitting your proposal to them and the opportunity closing date.

EPSRC must receive your application by 16:00 on 9 November 2021.

As well as the Je-S application form, the following documents must be submitted:

  • case for support (eight pages: two on your track record and six on the scientific case, including engagement plan. Please indicate your priority strand.)
  • workplan (one page)
  • justification of resources (two pages)
  • CVs (up to two A4 sides each only for named postdoctoral staff, researcher- co-investigators (research assistants who have made a substantial contribution to the proposal and will be employed on the project for a significant amount of time), and visiting researchers)
  • letters of support from all project partners included in the Je-S form (no page limit)
  • quotes for equipment above £25,000 (no page limit)
  • equipment business case for any items of equipment or combined assets with a value above £138,000 (up to two pages)
  • technical assessments for facilities listed as requiring one in the Je-S guidance (no page limit)
  • host organisation letter of support (two pages)
  • equality impact assessment form
  • cover letter (optional attachment, no page limit, not seen by peer review)
  • data management plan.

You should attach your documents as PDFs to avoid errors. They should be completed in single-spaced Arial 11 font or similar-sized sans serif typeface.

Detailed information on co-investigators, or project partners, is not required in the proposal. The involvement of any key collaborators or project partners can be explained briefly in the section for detailing the capability of the team to deliver, where required.

Advice on writing proposals for EPSRC funding.

Ethical information

EPSRC will not fund a project if it believes that there are ethical concerns that have been overlooked or not appropriately accounted for. All relevant parts of the ‘ethical information’ section must be completed.

Guidance on completing ethical information on the Je-S form.

EPSRC guidance can be found under ‘additional information’.

How we will assess your application

Assessment process

Network Plus proposals will be assessed against the criteria below by an independent panel of international experts, selected to represent a wide range of infrastructure and urban systems research and its stakeholders, who will produce a rank order list.

The panel may also provide feedback in the interests of preventing overlapping networks and creating the strongest possible networks for sustainable urban systems and infrastructure research. Following the expert panel, the strongest proposals will be invited for an interview.

A funding decision will be made by week commencing 31 January 2022.

In the event of this opportunity being substantially oversubscribed as to be unmanageable, EPSRC, NERC and AHRC reserve the right to modify the assessment process.

Assessment criteria

Quality (primary criterion)

The novelty, relationship to the context, timeliness and relevance to identified stakeholders.

The ambition, adventure, transformative aspects or potential outcomes.

The suitability of the proposed methodology and the appropriateness of the approach to achieving impact. This includes:

  • embedding impact and describing how the Network Plus will be impactful
  • appropriate engagement plans with users to accelerate impact
  • appropriateness of dissemination plans.

Fit to scope (primary criterion)

Demonstration of how the proposed network shall form an multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary and cross-sector community that can work together to address common challenges.

How does the network complement other UK research funded in the area, including any relationship to the EPSRC, NERC and AHRC portfolio?

The added value that funding for the network will bring. How do they build on UKRI investments?

Importance (secondary major criterion)

Relevance to new research opportunities and building new collaborations to address scientific research problems in infrastructure and urban systems.

How does the network contribute to addressing key challenges?

Demonstration of the network to drive high-quality research of national and global importance.

Potential for the network to benefit the specific place or location.

Does this solve a place specific problem or drive specific economic benefits?

How does it connect to place specific ambitions and priorities?

How does it contribute (or can be scaled to contribute) to solving national challenges?

Applicant and partnerships (secondary criterion)

Appropriateness of the track record of the applicant or applicants.

Balance of skills of the project team, including collaborators. The strength of the proposed network and the range of expertise of core Network Plus members.

Mechanism for widening the participation and collaboration with other relevant disciplines and interactions with international leaders in the field. Engagements with stakeholders within the local, regional and national landscape.

Resources and management (secondary criterion)

The effectiveness of the proposed planning and management and whether the requested resources are appropriate and have been fully justified.

The appropriateness of the requested resources and the effectiveness of the proposed management structure and plans.

Network vision and leadership (secondary criterion)

Demonstration of a clear vision for the strategic contribution to the programme of work. This should include:

  • project delivery
  • leadership
  • management of collaborators and staff
  • mitigation of risks.

It should consider the extent to which the planned activities allow the generation of ideas and implementation of plans to address the needs of the challenge.

There should be appropriate experience or plans to lead the network across various aspects of the programme, including a clear articulation of how the feasibility or pump priming funding pot shall be managed.

Sustainability of the activity after the lifetime of the grant.

COVID-19

UKRI recognises that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused major interruptions and disruptions across our communities. We are committed to ensuring that individual applicants and their wider team, including partners and networks, are not penalised for any disruption to their career, such as:

  • breaks and delays
  • disruptive working patterns and conditions
  • the loss of ongoing work
  • role changes that may have been caused by the pandemic.

Reviewers and panel members will be advised to consider the unequal impacts of the impact that COVID-19 related disruption might have had on the track record and career development of those individuals included in the proposal.

They will be asked to consider the capability of the applicant and their wider team to deliver the research they are proposing.

Where disruptions have occurred, applicants can highlight this within their application, if they wish, but there is no requirement to detail the specific circumstances that caused the disruption.

Feedback

Feedback will be given from the expert panel and from the interview panel.

Guidance for reviewers

EPSRC peer review process and guidance for reviewers.

Guidance for reviewing EPSRC standard grants.

Contact details

Ask a question about this opportunity

For any queries, please email: susinetworkplus@epsrc.ukri.org

Emails will be directed to the following council contacts:

  • EPSRC contact: Aimie Bartlett
  • NERC contact: Jacky Wood
  • AHRC contact: Emily Bultitude.

Get help with Je-S

Any queries regarding the submission of proposals through Je-S should be directed to the Je-S helpdesk.

Email: jeshelp@je-s.ukri.org

Telephone: 01793 444164

Opening times: Je-S opening times

Additional info

Background

Major challenges such as the transition to net zero, achieving sustainable urban systems and infrastructure require whole-system approaches that draw on a diverse range of expertise.

UKRI research in infrastructure and urban systems plays a major role in addressing environmental and engineering challenges associated with systems-wide infrastructure and smart, sustainable, healthy and resilient cities.

In a post COVID-19 world where rebuilding Britain, achieving net-zero, increasing productivity and resilience are the highest priorities across the UK, it is ever more important to ensure that sustainable infrastructure and urban systems research is at the heart of this.

The UK government released a National Infrastructure Strategy (PDF, 5.2MB) in November 2020 with the key aims of:

  • driving recovery and rebuilding the economy
  • levelling up and strengthening the union
  • decarbonising the economy and adapting to climate change
  • supporting private investment in infrastructure
  • accelerating and improving delivery.

It is important to ensure that urban systems and infrastructure research is embedded within these plans in order to realise the UK government’s strategy.

Infrastructure, skills and innovation are the three core pillars of growth for the government’s ‘build back better’ plan (PDF, 8.7MB), to be done by levelling up the whole of the UK, supporting the transition to net zero, and supporting the vision for global Britain.

Focus on sustainable urban systems which encompasses net-zero cities will help realise the full potential of our contribution to clean growth, the circular economy and delivery of:

These in turn reference intergovernmental ambitions including the UN global goals and the climate commitments enshrined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The urban goal (SDG 11) ‘make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ is positioning urban development as one of the priorities for future global sustainable development.

The UN Habitat (2016) New Urban Agenda and the UN (2015) Paris Agreement complement the UN Agenda 2030 with more detailed aims and priorities for urban development and climate change mitigation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced enormous short-term disruption and may have long-term effects on the way people live. Post the immediate COVID crisis, the UK research and development roadmap outlines the government’s ambition to ‘build a future which is greener, fairer, healthier and more resilient and innovative than before’ and outlines the critical importance of research and innovation in achieving this.

Our aims

We aim to fund HEIs and ROs with strong track records across the range of disciplines and stakeholder engagement that a systems approach demands, evidenced by their work with:

  • policy
  • business
  • regional and local communities and citizens.

This is to identify and address complex problems in the context of net-zero cities and infrastructure. These institutional partnerships will draw together existing capabilities and local strengths, building on them to grow new multidisciplinary capacity to deliver research solutions.

We aim to promote mobility between universities, research organisations, policy makers, local and regional leadership teams, and practitioners from the public and private sectors, nurturing a generation of researchers who take a whole-systems approach as the norm.

We aim to transfer experimental techniques, data, models, and scientific insights to test novel ways of multidisciplinary community networking using new tools and approaches.

Webinars

There is an opportunity to find out more and ask questions at one of our webinars on:

  • 5 October 2021 (14:00 to 15:00)
  • 7 October 2021 (10:00 to 11:00).

View the webinar slides (PDF, 1.6MB)

Responsible innovation

Through our funding processes, we seek to make a positive contribution to society and the environment, not just through research outputs and outcomes but through the way in which research is conducted and facilities managed.

UKRI is fully committed to develop and promote responsible innovation.

Read about responsible innovation.

Research has the ability to not only produce understanding, knowledge and value, but also unintended:

  • consequences
  • questions
  • ethical dilemmas
  • social transformations.

We recognise that we have a duty of care to promote approaches to responsible innovation that will initiate ongoing reflection about the potential ethical and societal implications of the research that we sponsor and to encourage our research community to do likewise.

Responsible research is defined as reducing harm and enhancing benefit on the environment and society through effective management of research activities and facilities. Specifically, this covers:

  • the natural environment
  • the local community
  • equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI).

Grant holders should consider responsible research context of their project, not the host institution as a whole, and take action to enhance their responsible research approach where practical and reasonable.

Applicants planning to include international collaborators on their proposal should visit Trusted Research for guidance on how to get the most out of international collaboration whilst protecting intellectual property, sensitive research and personal information.

NOTE Council web content is being transitioned to this website – let us know if you have feedback or would like to help us test new developments.