Advances in technology have always transformed our lives and indeed whole industries such as banking and retail. In the same way, sensors, cloud computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning can transform the way we use and manage our national infrastructure. Government could spend less, whilst delivering benefits to the consumer: lower bills, improved travel times, and reduced disruption from congestion or maintenance work.
The more information we have about the nation’s infrastructure, the better we can understand it. Therefore, data is crucial. Data can improve how our infrastructure is built, managed, and eventually decommissioned, and real-time data can inform how our infrastructure is operated on a second-to-second basis.
However, collecting data alone will not improve the nation’s infrastructure. The key is to collect high quality data and use it effectively. One path is to set standards for the format of data, enabling high quality data to be easily shared and understood; much that we take for granted today is only possible because of agreed standards, such as bar codes on merchandise which have enabled the automation of checkout systems.
Sharing data can catalyse innovation and improve services. Transport for London (TfL) has made information on London’s transport network available to the public, paving the way for the development of apps like Citymapper, which helps people get about the city safely and expediently. But it is important that when information on national infrastructure is shared, this happens with the appropriate security and privacy arrangements.
Our report sets out clear actions in three areas: collecting the right data; setting standards for data; and sharing that data securely. These actions can improve services whilst saving society billions of pounds.
Bearing in mind our 10-30-year timeframe, the report also sets out a roadmap towards a national digital twin: a digital model of our national infrastructure which will be able both to monitor our infrastructure in real-time, and to simulate the impacts of possible events, for example, a natural disaster, or a new train line. A digital twin could help plan and manage the nation’s infrastructure more effectively, and will only be possible through the secure sharing of high quality, standardised data across infrastructure.
As Bill Gates put it in his book The Road Ahead, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.”
Andrew Adonis Chair, National Infrastructure Commission