Following its recent Technology Study, on 14th December 2017, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) published a new report - ‘New Technology Study: Data for the public good’. The study “examines the opportunities that new innovations present – and makes recommendations to increase open data sharing to make the most of them”.
The report recognises the important role that data, technology and innovation can play in supporting and improving government service delivery and cost efficiency.
Careful attention is given to the thematic challenges associated with data, particularly around inaction, connectivity requirements, security and privacy. techUK supports an approach to digitalisation that adequately incorporates solutions and means of addressing these concerns.
The NIC asserts that the UK needs a “Digital Framework for Infrastructure Data” that will be a “national resource”, “as open as possible” and balanced with the ability to address “security risks and concerns”. This will be a momentous challenge, and if the NIC gets this right, it will be a fantastic opportunity for the country providing a strong foundation for innovation and development in the future of infrastructure. techUK supports an approach that takes these into consideration. However, there are key aspects missing from the framework that will be integral to its success, relevance and longevity. During the Call for Evidence (CfE) techUK submitted that the sharing of best practice across the infrastructure sector will play a crucial role in increasing the pace of innovation in the sector. techUK urges the NIC to reconsider this as a priority and build it into all aspects of its strategy and implementation in this area. The NIC then identifies technologies that generate and use data such as sensors, machine learning, digital twins and IoT as the most useful technologies in regards to maximising existing infrastructure.
There is clear excitement around the intention to develop a “national digital twin: a digital model of our national infrastructure” which will support real-time monitoring as well as simulation and testing. While this has proven to be practical in some specific use cases – such as on ships and in Singapore – it is yet to be done on a scale similar to what the NIC has envisioned. The lacking precedence does have the potential to diminish interest or validity in terms of developing a business case that can prove value-for-money.
The choice to focus so heavily upon the digital twin, as opposed to other options, and how the NIC proposes to approach the development of such a large-scale project is not explored in depth. As a result, it is unclear at this stage whether a digital twin will indeed be the best option to address the challenges currently being faced by UK infrastructure and the infrastructure industry as a whole. The original CfE sought to address a variety of priorities across energy, water, transport, digital, waste and flood defence, questioning what the immediate technology priorities were and what innovation initiatives were already underway. Importantly the NIC sought comments on how activities could be brought together more holistically to deliver on Government strategic ambitions.
Questions remain over whether the NIC expect the framework and the digital twin to automatically encompass these existing initiatives? If not, how will the NIC work to bring these together and align them, particularly with its ambition for a digital twin?
techUK does support the forward-facing vision that the NIC has presented in its ‘New Technology Study: Data for the public good’. However, to ensure greater engagement and buy-in from the general public, and industry the NIC needs to be more explicit in why it has made these specific choices, and how they will answer to the varying priorities, needs and concerns from the various stakeholders. Embracing a smarter approach to how we build, operate and maintain our infrastructure is critical to tackling the UK’s productivity challenge. techUK is committed to supporting key organisations that are driving change in our infrastructure sector, and we look forward to working with the NIC in making its recommendations a reality.