The NIC has been asked to identify which new technologies have the greatest potential for improving the productivity of the UK's infrastructure, and to make recommendations to the government about what steps it should take to support the development and deployment of those technologies. The topic was chosen following a 'call for ideas' for future studies run jointly by the Treasury and the NIC, which received over 200 responses.
Projects expert Natalie Trainor of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, welcomed the report.
"Infrastructure owners, operators and industry are increasingly recognising the significance of the current industrial revolution - one which is blurring the lines between physical and digital infrastructure and offering genuine alternatives to just building more of the same," she said. "We are already supporting projects which are deploying technology and data solutions to improve the efficiency, reliability, resilience and agility of existing infrastructure, and welcome the request to the NIC to undertake a study to enable government to better understand and explore this potential."
"Technology is a key enabler for innovation, and those quickest to embrace it are often the biggest winners. However, technology alone is not a panacea, and it is encouraging that this seems to be recognised by the stated scope of the forthcoming study which also asks the NIC to consider, for example, cross-sector relationships and interdependencies. In our experience, human factors such as securing cultural and organisations change, attracting new talent and/or adapting skills are equally important - although we note that this is out of scope of this study and will be taken forward by the IPA [Infrastructure and Projects Authority]," she said.
In a letter to the NIC this week, chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond said that the potential use of technology to enhance the UK's infrastructure offering was a "critical issue".
"Innovation and infrastructure are at the heart of the government's economic and industrial strategy, and emerging technologies have the potential to radically improve the way we manage our infrastructure," he said in the letter.
The NIC was set up in October 2015, and is currently operating on an interim basis before it is formally established as an arms-length executive agency of the UK Treasury in January 2017. Its role is to take a long-term look at the UK's infrastructure needs and to provide independent advice to ministers and parliament, including on specific priority areas at the request of the Treasury. It is currently reviewing what the UK needs to do to become a "world leader" in 5G telecoms, and is due to provide its recommendations to the government before the end of 2016.
The link between innovation and infrastructure was one of the central themes of this week's Autumn Statement and the chancellor's accompanying speech. The fiscal statement included the announcement of a new National Productivity Investment Fund for innovation and infrastructure, which will be worth £23 billion over the next five years. The funding incorporates a previous commitment of £2bn a year for research and development and a trial of digital rail signalling, although its other priorities have not yet been announced.
"There's an obvious link between the subject of the study and the National Productivity Investment Fund," said infrastructure expert Jonathan Hart of Pinsent Masons. "The money is there; and the NIC's recommendations will help the government to determine where it is to be spent for best effect. For example, the implementation of new signalling technology on the rail network and the strategic road network could provide greater capacity without materially changing physical infrastructure, and the associated expense and upheaval."