‘Data now as important to UK Infrastructure as concrete or steel’ – Sir John Armitt speech to DAFNI

Published: 10 Jun 2019



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Sir John Armitt today gave the keynote speech to the DAFNI conference. DAFNI is the Data & Analytics Facility for National Infrastructure. It is the first data and analytics facility of its kind to support infrastructure planning and research, facilitating collaboration across and between universities, government and the private sector. The data and modelling accessible through the DAFNI platform will be important to the Commission’s resilience study, which is considering what action government should take to ensure that UK infrastructure can cope with future changes, disruptions, shocks and accidents.

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“Thank you very much for inviting me to speak today.

As an engineer, I’ve spent my career building infrastructure and managing the processes behind creating new roads, railways, power stations and other physical structures.

Having the right numbers and information to hand has always been essential to the successful construction and operation of any piece of infrastructure.

But how we think of data in the infrastructure space has changed dramatically.

When I started out as an engineer, most of what we did was paper-based and on old fashioned spreadsheets. We used slide rules rather than iPads and GPS. Data was limited in its availability, and sometimes questionable in its quality.

Today, unprecedented amounts of data are at our fingertips in an instant.

New technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning offer the potential for the UK’s existing infrastructure to become smarter and work as an optimised system.

Data is now as important to UK infrastructure as concrete or steel.

There is an old joke – data is like people. Interrogate it hard enough and it will tell you whatever you want to hear.

Merely collecting data alone will not improve the nation’s infrastructure. Neither will ‘running the numbers’ in the way we’ve always done.

The key is not just the quality of the data we collect, but how we process it and finally how and where we use it.

That’s why today’s launch of the UK’s Data and Analytics Facility for National Infrastructure is an important step forward in using data to transform how we think about infrastructure.

The UK relies on effective infrastructure to drive sustainable growth, improve our competitiveness and improve the quality of life for everyone.

At the National Infrastructure Commission, our role is to provide the government with independent and evidence-based advice on what infrastructure the UK will need up to 2050.

That includes considering the need for new infrastructure – whether renewable power, fibre broadband, or water transfers. What financing models are needed. How we can make best use of new technologies.

Our work is also about ensuring that we make the best use of the existing infrastructure systems that we already have, or plan to create.

And when it comes under pressure from a growing population, or risks being knocked out by extreme events such as flooding, being able to reassure communities and businesses their infrastructure services are sufficiently resilient.

As a Commission, our purpose is ensuring there is a plan for effective, cost-efficient and reliable infrastructure for the next thirty years and beyond.

It’s quite a challenge.

Of course, it requires a long-term perspective of the UK’s future needs. But as we know too often, decisions about infrastructure are subject to short-term considerations.

The urgent often takes priority over the important, and the urgent always shouts the loudest.

The Commission’s role is to ensure the rational, considered, researched view on infrastructure is heard and – importantly – acted upon.

I’d like to mention two ways in which we are doing that: through the National Infrastructure Assessment, which we published for the first time last July, and our Resilience Study, for which we are now completing the scoping phase.

The UK’s National Infrastructure Assessment is, we believe, a strong foundation stone on which to build a new approach to how we ‘do’ long-term infrastructure planning in the UK.

Let me remind you of some of the headlines from that Assessment.

Digital connectivity, for example.

Broadband digital technology is no longer a luxury, it’s an essential utility. As fundamental to business and our daily lives as water and electricity.

And while connectivity is now the norm, it’s only a matter of time until we reach the limits of what our current network can provide.

We say in the Assessment that the UK needs a nationwide plan led by government to deliver full fibre broadband to all homes and businesses by 2033.

While the private sector should deliver much of this, the government needs to set a deadline and support investment, especially in places such as rural communities.

This spring we’ve seen clear evidence of increased public concern about the environment and the need for action to address climate change.

Building a low carbon economy is central to our Assessment.

We set the government the challenge of moving to at least 50 per cent of our electricity coming from renewables by 2030.

The Offshore Wind Sector Deal is a positive step forward in that regard, not least in securing the UK’s position as a world leader in renewables technology.

But there needs to be similar momentum built up, and a change of government mindset, around onshore wind and solar to ensure a rich mix of renewable sources of energy.

As part of this low-carbon economy, we also want the government to accelerate the shift to electric powered transport, with 100 per cent of new car and van sales electric by 2030.

Our Assessment calls for a truly national, visible rapid charging network. Only then can we reassure consumers and address their biggest fear – range anxiety.

So, we need to make it happen, and get the charging infrastructure in place.

That’s why the Commission is calling on the Chancellor to “Charge Up Britain”.

On transport, we proposed that £43billion additional funding and new powers be devolved to city leaders and Metro Mayors.

Our cities need the capacity to make long-term plans to improve local transport which in turn will boost productivity and growth. We think they’re best placed to know what their communities and businesses need to thrive.

Devolved powers and budgets to match would truly represent a major shift in government thinking, if adopted.

Now, that’s a gallop through the Assessment – I haven’t touched upon our recommendations on water, waste and recycling, flood resilience, design or future finance.

But I hope it indicates how comprehensive it is.

The Government has promised to respond in full through its forthcoming National Infrastructure Strategy. Last month, I wrote to the Chancellor setting out four tests for an effective strategy:

  • a truly long-term perspective.
  • clear goals and plans to achieve them
  • a firm funding commitment in line with the upper limit of the agreed guideline: 1.2% of GDP a year invested in infrastructure (and that’s just by the public sector)
  • and a genuine commitment to change how things are done.

This strategy is expected in the autumn. Given recent events and a new Prime Minister stepping into Number 10 before the Summer, things may be subject to change.

But we’ve been heartened that a number of leadership candidates have already set out their stalls…

… and appear to see that investment in infrastructure is one way of uniting a divided nation.

We believe there should be broad agreement on the priorities we have set out.

And that the assessment provides a clear plan for the UK’s infrastructure in the decades up to 2050, regardless of who the Prime Minister is.

When we started work on the Assessment, one area we recognised would be particularly challenging is understanding resilience.

We were able to make some progress in a couple of key sectors. The Assessment highlighted the need for a long-term strategy to ensure that all communities are resilient to severe flood events by 2050, and increased resilience to drought through a national water network.

We also identified that smart capability and resilience should form an important part of the infrastructure design process. Last month we announced the members of our Design Group, who will be considering just these sorts of topics.

We also highlighted the importance of undertaking more in-depth analysis of infrastructure resilience, as we had originally identified in the response to the Process and Methodology consultation in 2016.

So, naturally, we were pleased when the Chancellor asked the Commission to undertake the resilience study to determine how to ensure that the UK’s infrastructure can cope with whatever future changes, disruptions, shocks and accidents it faces.

The Chancellor asked the Commission to do a number of things…

  • Review existing approaches to the resilience of current and future infrastructure.
  • understand what the public expectations are in response to the potential loss of infrastructure services.
  • develop an analytical approach that can be used to better understand the resilience of economic infrastructure systems.
  • and to pilot analysis of infrastructure systems to identify actions to improve resilience.

We’ve been busy since the announcement to build a picture of existing knowledge, approaches and initiatives.

Our team has commissioned reviews of existing levels of service at home and abroad, improving our understanding of existing frameworks for assessing resilience.

They’ve also commissioned work on public expectations and attitudes and undertaken a public consultation.

And we’ve also held a successful problem definition workshop with a group of experts.

It’s taken a lot of work to get to this first stage, and we are grateful for your engagement so far through undertaking short studies, answering our questions or sharing your views.

So what happens next?

Towards the end of the month we’ll be publishing our scoping report for the study. This builds on the work that the team has done as well as the work they have commissioned, and the public consultation.

It will set out the priority areas the study will address to ensure that the next National Infrastructure Assessment asks the right questions – and proposes the best solutions – about resilience.

DAFNI provides a strong platform to help us to do this. It gives us the opportunity to ensure that the recommendations we make in the next Assessment will be based on the best data and robust modelling.

It will, crucially, enable us to develop our understanding of how increasingly inter-connected infrastructure systems work together, and affect each other.

It’s clear from the scoping phase that there is widespread recognition that this study is timely. There is enthusiasm from right across the infrastructure sector to help ensure the study generates the right outcomes.

We want to continue to draw upon that enthusiasm and the support you have already provided.

For instance, as part of the scoping report we’ll be publishing a call for evidence. Your data, insights and suggestions will be vital.

Your input will help us to draw sensible conclusions and develop recommendations which will improve the infrastructure systems that we all rely on. So, lots to do.

Next month, it will be one year since we published the National Infrastructure Assessment.

We think it’s the right approach for the UK and we’ve been busy making the case to ministers, MPs, officials, business, and in the media.

The Assessment offers a clear, achievable and affordable vision for the UK up to 2050. What happens next is down to the government.

We’ve seen positive responses, through the government’s adoption of our recommendations on reducing water leakage and tackling waste. But those were the easy wins.

Real change is required to transform the UK’s approach to long-term planning.

The next Assessment, of course, isn’t due for a number of years. However, time flies. And we’re already thinking about what it will need to cover, as I hope you all are too.

So, the earlier and deeper you can engage with the Commission and this study in helping us shape a new methodology for resilience in UK infrastructure, the more opportunity you will have to help shape the approach to NIA 2.

And with access to the new DAFNI platform, that process of collaboration and creative thinking should become a little bit easier.

Thank you.”

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