Making the case for smarter infrastructure

A collaboration involving academia and industry experts is making the case for smart Infrastructure, a global opportunity worth £2-4.8 trillion, say Dr Jennifer Schooling and Mark Enzer.

While effective and sustainable infrastructure is vital for the future growth of the UK, the sector faces challenges (investment, resources) and uncertainty (changing governments, climate change). However, developments in science and technology, particularly the revolution in the ability to sense materials, buildings and structures, offer prospective solutions to these challenges. 

Infrastructure is an information-driven industry and we are living in a digitally abundant age. While digital proliferation has brought opportunity and challenges in equal measure to all sectors of the economy, the response has not been uniform.

Automotive and aerospace have met this change with smart solutions, quick to exploit the evolution of sensors and data analytics, but the infrastructure and construction industry has been less dynamic. This may, in part, be due to historical constraints within the sector, including long lead-times, lack of choice in the supply chain and outdated finance and contract models. Challenges exist, but the call for change cannot be ignored. 

In a bid to facilitate the industry adoption of ‘smart’, a number of leading professionals and academics have come together to make the case for smart infrastructure, a global opportunity worth between £2-4.8 trillion. Their paper, Smart Infrastructure - Getting more from strategic assets, looks to establish: -

  • What smart infrastructure is;
  • Why infrastructure must embrace its development;
  • What steps the sector needs to take now to prepare for what will be fast-paced change.

Data is key to this discussion. The rapid and ongoing reduction in the unit cost of collecting, communicating, processing and storing data has led to the state of digital abundance – digital solutions in infrastructure are becoming increasingly affordable. This profusion of data is boosted by a significant increase in innovations across information technology and sensor-related fields, leading to an unprecedented opportunity to allow the future of infrastructure and construction to become ‘smart’ - when physical and digital infrastructure converge.

Digital infrastructure may vary from sector to sector, but it shares a similar anatomy comprised of three basic layers (data management, sense making and decision making) all connected by communication, with data as the key. It is the overlay of this model onto physical infrastructure that makes it ‘smart’.

Smart Infrastructure offers benefits to all stakeholders:

  • Owners and operators get more out of what they already have – increasing capacity, efficiency, reliability and resilience;
  • Getting more from existing assets will enable owners and operators to enhance service provision despite constrained finance, growing resource scarcity and short supply of greenfield sites;
  • A better understanding of the performance of our existing infrastructure will allow new infrastructure to be designed and delivered more efficiently, providing improved whole-life value.

In addition, smart infrastructure offers a more cost-effective way of delivering better outcomes for customers (the value of digital infrastructure is in the outcome per whole-life pound for the ultimate customer). Fundamentally, that value comes from:

  • Improved decisions - enabling better decisions, faster and cheaper;
  • Improved intelligence - providing better information to the users and operators;
  • Improved learning - providing enhanced feedback to drive systemic improvement.

While there are significant new infrastructure projects taking place in the UK, for example Crossrail and HS2, these only represent a fraction of our current infrastructure portfolio, much of which is now at an advanced stage of maturity. It will often be more cost-effective to add to the overall value of mature infrastructure via digital enhancements than by physical enhancements. Physical enhancements add ‘more of the same’, whereas digital enhancements can transform the existing as well.

Data, the ownership of it and, perhaps more pertinently, the ability to understand and act on it, is key to the future of smart infrastructure. Industry, organisations and professionals need to be ready to adjust in order to avoid being left behind and to take advantage of the emerging opportunities. 

Early adopters stand to get the most benefit. Everyone in the infrastructure sector has a choice as to how fast they respond to the changes that smart infrastructure will bring. But everyone will be affected. While change is inevitable, progress is optional. It’s time for infrastructure to choose smart.

Dr Jennifer Schooling is the director at the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) at the University of Cambridge and Mark Enzer is chief technical officer at Mott MacDonald. 

To read and comment on the paper Smart Infrastructure - Getting more from strategic assets, visit the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction’s website.