It’s time to think digitally about infrastructure

The UK needs infrastructure which connects more people to more opportunities more quickly and more reliably. That means thinking digitally, says Josh Dickerson.

“Roads, rails and cables boost productivity by developing networks and enabling businesses and individuals to connect more quickly, cheaply and efficiently”

Who could argue with that? Certainly no one involved in the infrastructure delivery industry, which would wholeheartedly endorse the words of Robert Jenrick, the exchequer secretary to the Treasury.

Jenrick is the individual who has responsibility for infrastructure delivery from a Treasury perspective, including the National Infrastructure Commission and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority. He has a lot on his plate. There is HS2, which is now looming large on the industry’s agenda as work on the first leg between Euston and Birmingham gathers momentum and regions across the country prepare for future stages of this hugely ambitious project.

There is continuing investment in smart motorways and the ongoing work of organisations like Midlands Connect in making sure strategic, cross-regional route networks have better links and fewer bottlenecks.

Critical as physical infrastructure is – and it’s as important we invest in protectors like flood defences as we do in enablers like airports – there isn’t a single project that will on its own solve the regional productivity puzzle that plagues the UK’s economy.

On that basis, we need to stand back from these necessary big bang projects and ask ourselves whether there is something else we should also be doing to make our city regions match-fit for the future. This is where the networks Jenrick referred to come in to play – the drive for a national digital infrastructure.

The need for a digital transformation of the built environment goes beyond its ability to deliver a step-change to productivity. It is a fundamental part of the drive to reduce carbon emissions and improve environmental sustainability. Most of all, it’s an opportunity to make what we’ve got work better and what we build deliver greater returns.

How? We need our built environment to generate data which allows us to better understand how it functions and how it’s used, and to use that data to develop dynamic, real-time solutions which enhance their performance both as economic arteries and as physical assets.

The scale of the opportunity has been alluded to by the National Infrastructure Commission in its exploration of potential for creating digital twins of the UK’s critical infrastructure (detailed in its Data for the public good report). This is also what the wave of technological developments commonly known as ‘Industry 4.0’ can help us achieve – a dynamically-managed physical infrastructure which is more resilient and responsive to changes in society and environment.

This is a huge, perhaps transformational opportunity. It touches on technologies that are becoming more commonly known – artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality, big data, internet of things, even blockchain – even if their potential is not yet fully understood.

It’s also important that we understand what a national digital infrastructure is and isn’t. Yes, it could be transformational, but it won’t be a single project running at a consistent speed. It will involve behavioural and cultural change and moving away from technological silos towards common technology standards (in the same way, for example, that the mobile communications industry did with 3G and 4G). At the most basic level, we need mechanisms for data sharing; in the longer term a framework which drives common standards.

Better methods for accessing and sharing data will be critical to achieving the step-change in infrastructure performance that our economy needs. So will a fast, robust digital communications infrastructure.

It will also be about public engagement – encouraging people to understand that if they adopt behaviours which enable better use of infrastructure we can all gain and demonstrating that there are adequate safeguards in place covering data and privacy. This touches on everything from through-ticketing to autonomous vehicles to the shape of the world around us and assumes people will be willing to change some of their basic habits.

Whether it’s road, rail or digital networks, we need infrastructure which connects more people to more opportunities more quickly and more reliably. These investments will be critical to unlocking the potential of the UK’s city regions and overcoming the imbalances in our economic geography.

The answer, surely is that boost that Robert Jenrick alluded to in his recent speech. And a realisation that infrastructure will deliver that boost best if we think digital first.

Read the full article on Infrastructure Intelligence here