Whether it’s bridges, canals, railways or roads, much of what we use today can be traced back to pioneering British engineers such as Brunel and Telford.
But visionary though they were, they could not have predicted the demands that the user of the 21st century places on our infrastructure . As our interim National Infrastructure Assessment outlined, we need to tackle the three Cs of congestion, capacity and carbon.
What would Brunel and Telford have made of the latest technologies, and the data that are generated? Our latest report, Data for the Public Good, highlights the opportunities that new innovations like artificial intelligence and machine learning create to make the best use of our infrastructure. It also sets out concrete proposals about we need to do to make the most of them.
We are well-placed to do this, as a world-leader in the field of artificial intelligence and other digital technologies and research. The possibilities are exciting. We can imagine a world with fewer traffic jams and quicker journeys as a result smart traffic light systems and autonomous vehicles; where maintenance on our rail network could be better planned through sensors and machine learning; where leaks in the water network could be identified using data from smart meters and repaired quickly, and where responses to extreme weather events could be better coordinated.
This is an important piece of work for the National Infrastructure Commission: it looks beyond steel and concrete – the traditional view of infrastructure – and probes how technological advances happening now and over the next three decades could transform the way we live and work.
But improvements will be slow unless we change the way we work. Currently, the UK has a culture of assuming that data – particularly data gathered by commercial companies – should be kept confidential unless a case can be made for its release. Today’s report highlights the need to turn that on its head: instead, the assumption should be that operational and asset management data should be open and shared, subject to appropriate safeguards to protect or withhold any personal or sensitive information, so that everyone can see how our infrastructure is performing and where improvements can be made.
That’s why we recommend a new digital framework to coordinate standards and formats for collecting and sharing data, helping to set minimum levels for commercial confidentiality and to put in place clear security safeguards. And it’s why we want to see a new Digital Framework Task Group, which would coordinate work on this across the public and private sector, and whose chair would act as a national champion for this agenda.
The other proposal that we make is for a pilot programme for a Digital Twin: creating a digital model of the UK’s infrastructure network. Again, the culture shift towards open data sharing will be crucial to making this happen. This would put the U.K. at the forefront of the technology, initially following in the footsteps of countries like Singapore, but then going further and aiming to create a tool that would be able to predict what demand our infrastructure is likely to face, when repairs are likely to be needed and how long our assets are expected to last.
We are only just beginning to see the real benefits that artificial intelligence and machine learning technology can offer across all sectors of the economy. As a world-leader in this field, we should be making the most of the advantage we clearly have – and that includes using these new innovations to make the most of our new and existing infrastructure.