New technologies hold key to cutting disruption across infrastructure, says NIC

Embracing forward-thinking technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning could massively reduce disruption across the UK’s infrastructure network, according to the chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC).

Lord Adonis says the introduction of new technologies could result in faster journeys by road and rail, cheaper energy bills, fewer water leaks and more reliable mobile and broadband connections, as well as potentially saving billions to the wider economy in improved productivity. The findings are in the NIC’s latest report which was commissioned by the chancellor in his autumn statement of 2016. It highlights the need for a digital framework coordinating standards and formats for collating and sharing data on the infrastructure network. 

But those behind the report have argued that a willingness to adopt new technologies is not enough and a change in mindset is needed to make high-quality data more readily available and consistent with companies and agencies sharing the data they have on how well their infrastructure operates. 

A digital framework task group would lead coordination across the public and private sector, and ensure that industry regulators participate in the process and require companies to share information. Much of this work would be led by the Centre for Digital Built Britain, a government-backed agency. The report includes a requirement that they report back to the NIC on progress by September 2018, so recommendations for further action can be made in time for next year’s autumn budget.

Commenting on the report, Adonis said: “We have a proud tradition of delivering good quality infrastructure that has changed the lives of entire communities - the challenge now is to embrace the newest technologies to make the most of the entire network. From smart meters to the latest artificial intelligence innovations, there are real opportunities to transform our infrastructure network and significantly cut delays and disruptions. But for the country to see the real benefits of increased productivity, there needs to be a huge improvement in the quality of our infrastructure data and a fundamental culture shift towards more open data sharing to enable everyone to see how services can be improved even further.”

The benefits of enabling new technologies through better infrastructure data could include:

  • Cutting the numbers of delays and disruptions to train journeys by better planning maintenance and making repairs more quickly through the use of sensor networks and the application of machine learning
  • Reducing the numbers of traffic jams on the roads by using smart traffic lights and other systems;
  • Responding to extreme weather events like snowstorms and floods in a more coordinated way 
  • Faster identification of leaks in the water network through data from smart water meters
  • Increasing competition between mobile and broadband operators by sharing data on signal and connection speeds – helping to end intermittent services

An example of technology that could be used is sensors, which could provide real-time data on how infrastructure performs, helping to get a better understanding of how well the network operates, and giving early warning of the need for maintenance and repair.

NIC commissioner Andy Green added: “Today’s report is crystal clear: we can significantly improve the performance of our infrastructure with new technologies. But we need to change our mindsets, to make high quality data more available to drive improved value for bill payers and improved experience for infrastructure users. Everyone, from government to industry, and from regulators to academics, has a role to play to make this happen. So today we’re issuing a call to arms for those at the cutting edge of new technology, to help make maximum possible use of it - not just for their particular areas of expertise but for the good of the country as a whole.”

To view the report, click here.

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