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Technology has a central role within the vision for UK infrastructure, says expert

FOCUS: Recent recommendations on the way the UK should approach major infrastructure projects highlight the central role technology should play in delivering the infrastructure the country needs to thrive.25 Oct 2016

Harnessing the power of technology was a central theme of the National Needs Assessment (NNA) report, which Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, contributed to.

The NNA report sets out a vision for UK infrastructure and is intended to guide the government-backed National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) as it produces its own National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) for the government, planned for 2018.

The report said: "We need a world class infrastructure to support our advanced economy which increasingly relies on connectivity – bringing together people physically and virtually to innovate and trade. An infrastructure revolution is underway, enabling smart delivery and use of infrastructure services with the potential to transform the way we use resources and connect with each other."

The report highlights the potential for technology to help "reduce the cost of building and operating infrastructure" recognising that the UK "cannot afford to spend our way out of infrastructure challenges simply by building new capacity". Indeed, simply building more would not be "the smart choice".

"Technology, enabled by the right policies, provides the opportunity to use new and existing infrastructure capabilities much more efficiently," the report said. "This will enable high quality affordable services. Infrastructure policy should involve a combination of increased capacity (where necessary), optimised by technology."

The report emphasises the potential of "big data and demand management techniques" to reduce costs and drive efficiencies and make the most of existing infrastructure capacity.

The opportunities to use connected technology and big data analytics in this regard are endless in a smart city context. For example, big data could help transform traffic management in cities by pointing drivers towards empty parking spaces and/or encouraging them into less congested areas through dynamic pricing.

Greater utilisation and reliance on technology is not without its challenges. For example, there are data privacy and security risks that must be managed, as well as potential uncertainties on the reliance that can be placed on autonomous systems. Getting these issues right and building public trust will be key success factors to the UK unlocking the potential of technology and getting the most out of its existing and new infrastructure in the years to come.

The report also recognises the importance of future-proofing UK infrastructure plans against technological disruption, the scale and pace of which are "difficult to predict". It recommends that "flexibility and resilience" should be built in to "major infrastructure investments" in order to plan and respond better to "potential technology disruptions".

This approach is already evident in the UK government's policy on telecoms. It has committed to ensuring people across the country have access to broadband services, under a new universal service obligation, and is also pushing the rollout of ultrafast broadband and '5G' wireless connectivity, the standards for which are still in development.

The government's approach to these issues is the right one – it has adopted a technology-neutral stance on its broadband rollout, on ultrafast broadband and on 5G. This recognises that a mix of technologies could be used to deliver the connectivity government has identified that UK businesses and consumers need to boost the economy.

The report looks ahead also to a future of increased "automation of services", and predicts this "will change the nature of skills required to deliver and manage infrastructure".

A recent report by a parliamentary committee said the UK "must respond" to the increased use of robotics and Artificial Intelligence "with a readiness to re-skill, and up-skill, on a continuing basis". The government is expected to outline a digital strategy which will hopefully identify ways to ensure the UK has the skills necessary to utilise technology to its full potential when building and operating infrastructure.

The report also recognises  that infrastructure policies transcend the terms of governments and that there is a need for greater "cross-sector collaboration and decision making" to make the most of infrastructure assets.

The creation of the NIC by the UK was a firm step in the right direction in this regard, but the report emphasises that "a shared vision, cross-sectoral framework and strong governance and regulation is now required" for the UK to adopt a "more strategic approach to infrastructure planning and delivery".

The report acknowledges the "interdependencies" that exist between different infrastructure sectors, such as energy, transport and digital. Failure to identify and address these will continue to see projects proceeding under uncoordinated strategies and decision making with national infrastructure being treated in silos as a series of stand-alone assets.  

We support the NNA's recommendation that national infrastructure be viewed as a 'system-of-systems' to enable a more strategic approach to be taken. Government, businesses and regulators all have a role to play in informing and shaping this joined up approach, and collaboration with industry and across different sectors will be critical.

The NNA report recognises that technology should be at the heart of infrastructure planning and operation in the UK. With the NNA report expected to be the blueprint for the National Infrastructure Assessment, we hope and expect that the National Infrastructure Commission will equally embrace the power of technology to deliver the necessary "world class infrastructure" to support the UK's long term future.

Simon Colvin and Natalie Trainor are technology law experts at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.