From smart data to smart people

Alex Gilbert, Managing Director
29 December 2017
Image of a plane on Heathrow terminal 5 runway.
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As the UK seeks to rebalance its post-Brexit economy, city regions are potentially great engines for growth. With their devolved powers and responsibilities for public assets, new urban Mayors have a pivotal role to drive regional improvements.

But how best to do this in the ‘smart city’ era?

A vast and growing number of connected digital technologies, tools and techniques – the new, highly connected internet of infrastructure – stands ready to transform the way assets around us are planned, delivered and operated.

New internet of infrastructure tools will not only help maximise the efficiency of existing operations, even more importantly, they can help us understand the impact infrastructure has on users and better predict what services and investment will be needed in the future.

As the increasing use of data expands the frontiers of what’s possible, it’s easy to forget the most fundamental question: why?

This question informs everything else we do and defines our ability to connect with customers, build the right assets and deliver the full economic and social benefit that infrastructure investment promises.

In an urban design context, asking why we are creating a city in a particular way allows us to better answer the questions that follow, such as what kind of urban environment do 21st century citizens want and how can data support or steer our plans?

Citizen engagement as a major focus for smart cities

Connected technologies and the exploitation of data can substantially change the “terms of engagement” in the public debate about how much to invest, in what sort of infrastructure, where and for what purpose. This puts urban Mayors in a good place to guarantee the best outcomes for the customers, passengers and citizens of their communities.

But in a smart city of constantly changing consumer behaviour and expectations, a deep understanding of data and technology must be coupled with the ability to interpret and respond in a real environment with real people.

Services need to be designed to take account of the extra demand unlocked by the use of mobile devices.

Looking after your best assets

Maximising the whole life value of assets: from new to maintaining the existing

According to Digital Built Britain, a government backed industry-led group driving forward construction’s digital transformation, the UK invested £89bn on new infrastructure in 2016 and £122bn in operating expenditure to keep those assets running.

But this is dwarfed by the £597bn (a figure also provided by Digital Built Britain) that the public sector invests in the services that utilise and benefit from UK infrastructure.

The reality is that when it comes to the UK’s established built environment, the old is the‘new’ new. Every local authority and devolved administration must ensure they extract best value from every asset across its whole life – and that means thinking beyond simply building cheaper or maintaining faster. Connectivity, automation, sensors and smart technologies, combined with the integration of design, construction, maintenance and operation - offer a massive opportunity to boost infrastructure performance and outcomes across the whole life of assets.

People are our smartest asset

And there’s another important point. Smart cities and smart infrastructure need smart organisations and people to process data and make them work effectively.

It’s easy to overestimate the extent to which organisations, public or private, can adapt to embrace the changes implied by smart technologies.

A major risk to technology-led programmes is that they overlook the critical importance of an adaptive workforce and the need for, often fundamental, change in the way the relevant organisations function.

And that’s a missed opportunity for society, people and innovation.

There is no shortcut to having a well-developed and formal change programme when introducing smart technology into a traditional industry or municipal body.

Cutting-edge contributions to infrastructure will only play well in the real world if the delivery model is right.

Rooting intelligent interventions in the real world

A grounded end-to-end approach, with its head in the blue skies of innovation and its feet in delivery, is the only way to power longer lasting, harder working and better performing infrastructure innovations.

Cookie cutter solutions which do not leverage client insight will never get the most from investment. Nor will those that fail to dovetail existing network and asset management capabilities with real-time-data science, asset analytics and smart planning and design.

This is a socioeconomic opportunity as much as a technological one – a chance to create and effectively maintain infrastructure that drives local economies, keeps communities moving and creates a more adaptive and productive workforce.

By asking 'why'?, infrastructure planners and decision-makers can embrace this digital revolution intelligently, with our boots firmly on the ground. We can open up the opportunity for deeper strategic partnerships across regions.

The new internet of infrastructure is a powerful tool. We must be smart enough to use it.

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