A bright future – why innovation is coming to highway networks

The UK roads sector has historically been slow to adopt new techniques, but it's turned a corner, says the chief executive officer of Yotta, Nick Smee  

Historically, the UK highways industry has not generated a great reputation for innovation, especially so when it comes to the way it manages and maintains road structures. The introduction of polymer-modified bitumen to improve road surfaces and analytical pavement design both took decades to move from concept to practical application. Other sectors such as telecoms and consumer electronics have been much more attuned to change.

These kinds of innovations have in the past too often been introduced in isolation by local authorities and have needed multiple instances of successful implementations to have occurred before they are recognised as standard best practice and shared across the entire sector. We often also see instances of research efforts being duplicated, with different institutes conducting similar studies in parallel but with little or no collaborative effort.

In today’s complex environment of highways asset management, it is more important than ever that this situation changes. Chancellor Phillip Hammond made an extra £1.3 billion available to improve Britain’s roads in his Autumn Statement (November 2016). Unfortunately, this capital investment cannot disguise the fact that councils' budgets for ongoing repairs and maintenance remain tight and subject to further cuts.

With an apparent crisis in social services and Brexit adding further national economic uncertainty, there is little sign of an upswing in revenue funding for local authority highway departments.

Coupled with this, data growth remains as much a challenge as an opportunity. Volumes accessible to councils are likely to grow, with the Internet of Things generating huge quantities of potentially useful data. Right now, though, many authorities don’t have easy access to the data on their network or fully understand what is there. The danger is they become overwhelmed by it all.

In light of the above, there is a clear need for authorities to ‘do more with less’ and start to genuinely embrace innovation as a means of overcoming their challenges and as a driver to achieve their goals.

The good news is we are now starting to see a new more positive environment emerge across the highways infrastructure sector, making change easier to achieve. Demographics are shifting; the new generation of millennials is starting to make its voice heard, and is more accepting and demanding of waves of innovation than any previous generation has been. The clever, braver businesses are beginning to work their way through the waves of data to pick out the golden nuggets – and we are now starting to see the results. Introduction of smart motorways and the accelerating uptake of strategic asset management software are both cases in point.

The latter, in particular, has started to pave the way for radical change within local authority departments and highways agencies, introducing a whole new way of working and making proactive planning easier to achieve. This in turn helps facilitate a more collaborative approach to highway asset management, with solutions providers, councils and contractors all coming together to achieve a common goal. It also helps support enhanced communication between stakeholders by making key data more easily accessible, especially when techniques like enhanced visualisation are proactively employed.

It’s clear that in a world where the challenges facing highways agencies are likely to persist and in some cases even worsen over time, it is crucial that these organisations start to embrace innovation and use it positively to overcome the challenges they face. Strategic asset management needs to be a key part of this, helping not only drive the way in which highways authorities take decisions, helping them secure funding and ensure all key stakeholders are kept onside and positively focused on achieving common goals. That’s why we believe despite all the challenges, the highways infrastructure sector will have a bright future ahead.

Nick Smee is chief executive officer of asset management software and services specialist Yotta