The current pandemic has been a powerful but unforgiving teacher. It has demonstrated the importance of data and the power of digital models to derive insights from those data, to help us model outcomes, to guide the pulling of the levers to control “R” and to help us make better more-informed decisions. Covid’s disruptive impact across all sectors and societies has also revealed the interconnections and interdependencies between our economic and social infrastructure, highlighting the importance of creating resilient, sustainable and secure infrastructure systems upon which essential services depend.
So why change our view of infrastructure?
We have created an amazing, complex machine on which we wholly depend. Without it, our lives would be immeasurably worse. Society would not survive. That machine is infrastructure – our built environment. However, we don’t appreciate the relationship between infrastructure and our wellbeing. Therefore, we don’t set objectives in terms of outcomes for people and society.
And although we understand each part of the built environment, we do not manage it as a whole. Therefore, we don’t know how to address its systemic vulnerabilities or make it work better. If we envision, plan and manage infrastructure differently, we can make it what it should truly be: A platform for human flourishing.
Putting people first
The Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) and the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) have recently published ‘Flourishing systems’, which makes the case for a people-focused systems-based vision for infrastructure. As we consider priorities following the Covid-19 outbreak, we have an opportunity to plot a new course that recognises the fundamental role of infrastructure in the social, economic and environmental outcomes that determine the quality of people’s lives. To do this, we must see infrastructure as a complex, interconnected system of systems that must deliver continuous service to society. Infrastructure is so much more than just a series of construction projects.
Adopting a system-of-systems approach makes it possible to address the great systemic challenges such as achieving net-zero carbon emissions, improving resilience and preparing for a circular economy. It also unlocks the potential of digital transformation across the built environment.
How digitalisation delivers value
With the ongoing digital transformation of the infrastructure industry, we have the opportunity to deliver huge benefit for people – for whom infrastructure ultimately exists. Digital transformation encompasses how we function as organisations, how we deliver new assets and how we operate, maintain and use existing assets. Bringing digital and physical assets together creates cyber-physical systems – smart infrastructure. Effectively, this is applying the fourth industrial revolution to infrastructure. Making better use of asset and systems data is central to this vision because better analysis of better data enables better decisions, producing better outcomes, which is the essential promise of the information age.
As part of this, we must recognise digital assets, such as data, information, algorithms and digital twins, as genuine ‘assets’, which have value and must be managed effectively and securely. In time, as data and digital assets become valued, data itself will be seen as infrastructure.
We are now at a point where the vision for effective digitalisation of the whole of the built environment is within reach.
Enabling secure, resilient data sharing
Managing complex interconnected systems requires the appropriate tools. CDBB’s National Digital Twin programme sets out a structured approach for effective information management across the system as a whole. This approach is informed by ‘The Gemini Principles’ and is driven by the NIC’s ‘data for the public good’ report. The recent paper ‘Pathway Towards an Information Management Framework’ suggests an approach for the development of an Information Management Framework to enable secure, resilient data sharing across the built environment. It is this that will enable data connections between digital twins, which is at the heart of the concept of the ‘National Digital Twin’ – an ecosystem of connected digital twins.
All systems go
Taking a systems-based approach to our infrastructure will improve our ability to deliver desirable outcomes for people and society – around accessibility, inclusion, empowerment, resilience and wellbeing – not just for now but for generations to come. It will also better equip us to address the urgent global systemic challenge of climate change. It’s time to see infrastructure differently – as a system of systems that provides a platform for human flourishing.