Infrastructure Design for Evolvability: Theory and Methods

  • Guilherme Biesek

Student thesis: Phd


The development of new infrastructure invariably requires massive capital investments, take many years to design and deliver, and are expected to operate for several decades. During delivery and operational lifetime, the functional requirements are likely to change. To make the assets economically adaptable to foreseeable changes, sizeable investments in design flexibility may be required upfront. Under uncertainty about the future and tight budgets, multi-stakeholder teams must trade-off additional investments in flexibility with more affordable investments in rigid designs at risk of costly adaptation. How to help project teams bridge their divergences and coalesce their views of the world into a project strategy is the core question at the heart of this research. After reviewing the limitations of current practice and theory in the management of capital projects, this study turns to real options reasoning. By definition, investments in design flexibility can be equated with buying options: if the future resolves favourably, the options can be exercised to adapt the design economically. To advance theory and practice on capital design for evolvability, this study combines case-based with experimental work. First, an exploratory study reveals that, despite using options thinking, project teams find real options mathematical models inadequate to support mundane design decisions. A subsequent study on design practices at Network Rail shows the difficulties of designing for evolvability become amplified with multiple stakeholders. With asymmetry in capabilities, knowledge, and power to influence decisions, multi-stakeholder teams systematically resort to a combination of informal options thinking and 'money talks' to resolve concept design. Tensions flare up whenever stakeholders demanding investments in design flexibility cannot fund them. These findings suggest that a formal procedure to design for evolvability can offer a superior approach at front-end strategizing. To test this proposition, this research develops an original proof-of-principle of a formal design for evolvability framing that cross-fertilizes literature on project risk management and real options theory with insights from the fieldwork. It also develops a two-group experiment - grounded on fine-grained empirical data from a real-world rail station project - to compare the performance of the experimental and control groups in terms of effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction. The results show that a formal design for evolvability framing can improve front-end strategizing. As project teams become more efficient, they have more time to effectively resolve the design for evolvability strategy. Importantly, teams are unlikely to reject attempts to formalize the decision-making process. The study also shows that a formal design for evolvability strategy can improve the accountability of decision-makers for investments in design flexibility. Final considerations discuss the generalizability and limitations of these insights, and future directions.
Date of Award31 Dec 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorNuno Gil (Supervisor) & Eunice Maytorena-Sanchez (Supervisor)


  • experiment
  • real options
  • design for evolvability

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