New technologies could help cut delays and disruption to Britain’s infrastructure

Published: 14 Dec 2017



Digital image suggesting a connected city

Delays and disruption across the infrastructure network could be significantly reduced if the country takes steps to make the maximum possible use of the latest technologies, Lord Adonis said today.

The chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission said the results of introducing artificial intelligence and machine learning technology could be 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.

An example of this could be the use of 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.

But he warned that these benefits can only be realised if steps are taken to improve the quality, consistency and availability of data, with companies and agencies sharing the data they have on how well their infrastructure operates – while at the same time taking account of the necessary security precautions.

A national framework for infrastructure data would drive up quality and consistency and promote a move away from data silos and towards greater sharing, whilst ensuring the protection of personal data.  A digital framework task group, whose chair would act as a national champion for this agenda, would have responsibility for driving progress.

This would provide the first step towards developing a ‘digital twin’ of the UK’s infrastructure – a digital model of the network spanning transport, energy, water and telecommunications, with predictive capability which could vastly improve how infrastructure is managed, maintained and planned in the future. Britain’s strengths in artificial intelligence and machine learning make it well placed to lead this agenda, starting with a pilot digital twin project next year.

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

Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission Lord 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.”

Deputy chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission Sir John Armitt said:

“Anyone who has sat in a traffic jam or faced engineering works on their train line will know that we need to increase capacity on our infrastructure.  But building more cannot be the only solution – we also need to make the most of what we have.

“New technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning could hold the key, helping to make the network run more efficiently but also with the potential to predict what future demand is likely to be, and when repairs are most likely to be needed.

“The UK is a world-leader in this field – but we need to change the way we work and share the data this will generate, to truly make the most of the opportunities this presents.”

Commissioner Andy Green said:

“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.”

Digitising Britain’s infrastructure network

These findings are included in the Commission’s latest report into how new technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning can improve the performance of the UK’s infrastructure network.

In particular, the report highlights the need for a digital framework coordinating standards and formats for collating and sharing data on the infrastructure network, with action needed to move towards minimum levels of commercial confidentiality and to agree clear security safeguards – all while ensuring as much data is made available as possible, and protecting the privacy of consumers.

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 – and the report includes a requirement that they report back to the National Infrastructure Commission on progress by September 2018, setting out their recommendations for next steps.

The report also recommends that the Centre for Digital Built Britain work closely with the Alan Turing Institute in the development of a “digital twin” pilot, drawing upon the world-class expertise in artificial intelligence technologies across the UK’s university, public and private sectors.

Notes to Editors:

Data for the Public Good is published today and can be found here

This follows a study by the National Infrastructure Commission into how new technologies including artificial intelligence can be used to improve the productivity of the UK’s infrastructure network.

The study was commissioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Autumn Statement of 2016.

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