Rich Hampshire, CGI & chair of the SmarterUK Energy & Utilities Board, explores the importance of connectivity in delivering intelligent infrastructure.
techUK’s 'Delivering Connectivity for All' campaign week is a great initiative to highlight the importance of connectivity in the way we chose to live our lives today. But we don’t just benefit through our direct use of connected devices; unseen by most of us are the growing levels of automation enabled through device to device connectivity. Whether you choose to talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Industry 4.0, cyber-physical systems or the now widely accepted Internet of Things, devices are talking to devices and that’s benefitting us all by helping things run more efficiently.
My home sector is utilities, where device to device connectivity is already well established, from SCADA systems to industrial control systems. From the drive to become net zero to address climate change, to where we live and the way we work, things are undergoing a fundamental transformation – and I don’t use that term lightly. The demands we place on our established public good infrastructures are changing. If we are to continue to benefit from the levels of safety and reliability we have come to take for granted, then appropriate, timely access to data about the utilisation and performance of infrastructure is vital. And that means connectivity will become increasingly important in the dynamic operation of ever more intelligent infrastructures.
There are many challenges in achieving this transition, but I’m going to highlight just two.
Firstly, this will be a progressive move, in some cases over decades. The evolution towards intelligent infrastructure will be prioritised in areas where the existing infrastructures are under strain. That will mean future technologies will need to be able to co-exist with both current generations and already deployed devices that use a plethora of different standards and protocols.
Whilst there’s much talk about ensuring that the systems we implement support backward compatibility for existing technologies already deployed, the importance of standards, such as 5G, and giving consideration to designing for forward compatibility should not be underestimated. This is essential if we are to reduce the risk of stranding both technology and investment in the future.
My second point is about the importance of resilience and reliability of the connectivity between devices. We’ve all had calls drop and lost connectivity on our mobile devices. Whilst irritating, these impacts are not the same as a loss of connectivity in the operation of critical national infrastructures. The growing intelligence in our infrastructures will enable them continue to operate efficiently with the changing demands we are placing on them. This will require ever increasing levels of connectivity to ensure that the data required is appropriately available when needed.
The challenge, therefore, is to make sure that the reliability and resilience of the connectivity enables the existing levels of safety and reliability of our utility infrastructures to be, as a minimum, maintained, if not improved further.
And one final thought. The importance of our trust in the safety and security of these systems should not be underestimated. So cyber security needs to be at the heart of the approach to the design of not only the devices themselves, but also for the system as a whole.