Key Findings, Commonalities and Connections
This section highlights the key findings of the research, including the commonalities in themes or issues identified across infrastructure areas, and connections between infrastructure areas.
Digitisation and Automation
Two key overarching trends across infrastructure areas in terms of technology deployment are digitisation and automation.
- There is a big shift in the pace of digitisation of services, systems and solutions. The development of smart and intelligent systems is one example of deploying advanced IT technologies on top of existing infrastructure, or as an integral part of it (such as energy generating materials on buildings), that enables more intelligent management of services. Digitisation is also having an impact on how infrastructure is planned for and maintained. For example, the use of Augmented and Virtual Reality solutions in planning, maintenance and operations is increasing. We also witness the use of Digital Twins in various applications. Along with big data, machine learning and analytics, this enables a variety of maintenance issues in infrastructure networks to be solved.
- There is a clear trend towards automation. Whether by deploying sophisticated Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions, or in the use of Robotics and Drones, the trend to augment or replace human involvement in many areas of infrastructure activity is evident.
Harnessing these trends will require digital connectivity infrastructure to be enhanced. In turn, this drives a focus on cyber security; system interoperability and workforce skills development.
1) Cyber Secured Communications
- All major infrastructure areas require strong and secure communications networks. Whether communications are delivered over 5G, Broadband or via Satellite Applications, data exchange and communications are a necessary condition for the delivery and sharing of data that can be translated into insight and action. Whether this is for enabling Intelligent Transport Systems, Smart Grids, Intelligent Buildings and Waste Monitoring, or in telehealth applications, all depend on effective communication systems. To ensure that such critical communication systems operate smoothly, cyber security is a critical requirement.
- With the growth in interconnected systems and networks for transport, energy and healthcare, critical national infrastructure is increasingly becoming a potential target for cyber attacks. The challenges around cybersecurity will need to have a clear prioritisation as national or business risk issues, which may require a shift in resource allocations and skill sets.
- 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT) will support the rise of smart cities, resulting in significantly more data being created. This means the need for significantly more capacity to transmit that data reliably and consistently, which may require investment in data centre capacity and better data management strategies.
2) Systems inter-operability and Common Standards
- Systems inter-operability and common standards (technical, operational, communication) are a critical enabler for many of the applications reviewed. Making sure that energy, home or building automation and communication systems are truly inter-operable is a basic building block of smart home and smart energy solutions. This also requires a focus on open systems (i.e. where multiple rather than only one or a few vendors can co-exist). Combining this with common standards is an important component of enabling and speeding up technology deployment.
3) Skills Development
- Developing smart, intelligent systems for infrastructure could have major benefits to citizens and businesses, but a major issue is the skills available to support deployment and operation of these systems to maximise that benefit. For example, experiences and skills in recycling technologies are needed to facilitate the wide adoption of the Circular Economy concept; and for the deployment of advanced energy management systems, technology-familiar staff will need stronger skills in areas such as data analysis and AI tool use. While there is uncertainty around the scale of the future impact of automation on jobs and skills, there is the potential for significant disruption. This will require a focus on skilling and re-skilling the workforce, particularly in areas where automation is expected to have a significant impact such as transport and construction.
Decentralised Models of utility and service delivery
Another cross-cutting trend as a result of technology deployment is towards decentralised models of activity, service use and resource generation and consumption. Examples includes remote working, remote service use and distributed energy generation.
- Increased remote working due to technology solutions will see a rise in new opportunities. The growth in communications technology infrastructure and cloud based solutions have enabled a growth in remote working. This has opened up opportunities for work at home / work anywhere models, both for employees and for self-employed workers. This has implications for employment regulation and for taxation, as well as for transport and travel.
- Digital Health is changing models of healthcare delivery via telehealth solutions. This technology could reshape and improve services, support person-centred care and improve outcomes, by enabling citizens to better manage their health and wellbeing – thus moving to a more preventative focus - and to gain access to services using digital technologies. Such technologies might bring significant health impacts among patients in areas where the physical health infrastructure is limited.
- There is an increasing localisation of energy supply and demand solutions. Distributed energy generation and storage, smart buildings that aim for net zero energy status and using advanced material technology to generate energy at the point of use, are all examples of this trend. This supports a range of objectives such as low carbon targets and energy efficiency. It could also enable prosumer-based business models, which could potentially generate revenue streams for rural communities.
Prevention Rather Than Repair
A third key trend enabled by technology deployment is a shift in focus towards preventative maintenance of infrastructure.
- Predictive maintenance across infrastructure aims to reduce repair challenges. With the rise of predictive analytics, advanced materials and sensor technologies, it is possible to better anticipate maintenance needs. Observational technologies such as drones can also be used to monitor infrastructure. The aim is to reduce both the risk and the operational costs of unexpected breakdowns of infrastructure capacity.
Connections between infrastructure types
Converging technology trends across a range of infrastructure areas creates interdependence and connections between infrastructure types.
- The growth of smart cities creates more interdependent infrastructure systems such as smart transport, wireless systems, water networks and power grids. Technologies like digital twins could also enable better real-time analysis of assets for greater efficiency across infrastructure areas. This requires collaboration and cooperation across industries, technology firms and public organisations.
- As systems become increasingly interconnected, one of the challenges is to isolate failures, which can spread from one infrastructure to another. This requires making critical infrastructure more resilient and reallocating resources toward prevention and recovery.
- Energy and water systems are closely interconnected; energy is required to extract, treat and deliver water, while water is used in many stages of energy production and electricity generation. Demand for these is increasing and technologies will need to address and optimise energy-water trade offs, while there will need to be an integrated approach to energy-water planning. The merging of technical and operational managements could potentially drive more business mergers in these sectors.
- Due to technology developments, all areas of infrastructure have an increasing demand for communications infrastructure, so having a unified utility infrastructure approach when planning and building new developments will become more appealing.
- Given the increase in supply and demand for data, driven by the rise of IoT and advanced sensing technologies, and growth in cloud computing, there is a large demand for data centres. A potential trend occurring is the location of data centres closer to centres of consumption. Given the growth in distributed energy generation, it is also possible to imagine a more distributed model of data centres co-located with distributed and renewable energy sources. For example, Microsoft Corp has deployed an underwater data centre powered by renewables at the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in Orkney. Co-located energy and data utilities could become a future trend, with the implications for infrastructure planning and management becoming clearer over time.
Climate Change Impact
Finally, an important driver of technology adoption across a range of infrastructure areas is climate change. Technological developments will become increasingly important in both the mitigation of climate change impacts and in adaptation to those impacts.
- An increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events due to climate change is likely to impact on infrastructure planning and operation. The UK is set to get warmer and wetter, with some cities being impacted by rising sea levels. Along with changes in temperature, this may have important implications for infrastructure design, operation and maintenance, and could increase the risk of disruptions, damage and failure of systems.
- Technology adoption will be central to both climate change mitigation and adaptation, with implications for infrastructure. For example, more stringent regulations on emissions to mitigate climate change may drive a preference for investments in greener modes of travel, such as renewable energy charging stations for electric vehicles, or better walking/cycling infrastructure. Investments in the digitisation of infrastructure could enable better adaptation to the effects of climate change, by enabling smart risk management at regional or country level, which would facilitate the design of infrastructure that is more climate-resilient.