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New digital infrastructure taskforce to advise on future UK needs

A new digital taskforce will bring together experts from academia, industry and the government to advise on how data, artificial intelligence and machine learning can be used to predict the UK's infrastructure needs, the government has announced.23 Jul 2018

The Digital Framework Task Group (DFTG), which will be based out of the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) at the University of Cambridge, has been established in response to the recommendations of the UK's independent National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) in its report, 'Data for the Public Good'..

Last week, the government published its response to the NIC's report, which explored the future use of technology to improve UK infrastructure. It will take forward three out of the NIC's four recommendations, which also includes a programme of work to be led by DFTG and the Infrastructure Client Group (ICG) to encourage a shift towards minimum levels of commercial confidentiality around infrastructure data by the industry.

The government does not intend to immediately take forward the NIC's recommendation to create a pilot 'digital twin' of infrastructure in a specific UK geographical area, allowing for virtual projections to be carried out into future capacity need. Instead, the DFTG has been asked to "consider what programme of work is needed to enable the development of digital twin models and how government and the private sector can support this work".

The DFTG will further examine the case for digital twins, working with the industry to identify opportunities to test predictive models, as part of its wider work to develop a digital framework for UK infrastructure delivery. The DFTG has been asked to report to the government by October 2018 with a 'roadmap' to design and deliver this framework, considering what data should be shared and by whom, what standards will be needed to encourage greater sharing, and the role of government and the private sector in this process.

In a statement, NIC chair Sir John Armitt called on the government to back industry-led innovation and support the development of a full digital twin of the UK's transport, energy, water and telecommunications networks. The digital twin could be used to improve how UK infrastructure is managed, maintained and planned, as well as providing support to the UK's growing artificial intelligence industry, he said.

"The UK is helping set the pace internationally for the development and application of new technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning - as our report last year indicated, these innovations could transform the way our infrastructure runs," he said.

"I would now urge the government to consider the next frontier for infrastructure planning - the development of a digital twin. Following the sector deal signed earlier this year, this would be a further, welcome shot in the arm for our leading technology industry and help the UK to become a world leader in the field," he said.

In its report last year, the NIC said that a digital twin could "provide insights beyond what is currently seen with existing infrastructure models and can be used as a tool to aid decision making". The model could, for example, use big data and artificial intelligence to determine what changes need to be made to the way that the public uses transport if the population of London were to increase by 50% by 2050.

Technology law expert Daryl Cox of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said "the choice to not immediately adopt the NIC's recommendation to proceed with a government-backed digital twin pilot should not be taken as a lack of belief in the concept. The government appears to be taking an incremental approach in response to the NIC's report and has recommended that the DFTG explores the benefits and need for digital twin pilots in its October 2018 roadmap."

"The private sector has made substantial headway into infrastructure asset modelling with products that allow automated operations and decision making. It makes sense to collaborate further with the private sector and also academia before jumping into a government-backed digital twin pilot. Though the NIC's report sets an exciting vision for a national digital twin that will form a very useful basis for that collaboration", he said.

Once developed, the digital twin model could also be used to plan maintenance works on UK roads and railways in a way which minimises disruption to consumers, or to allow those planning to install new infrastructure to virtually 'overlay' their plans onto existing infrastructure, according to the NIC's report.

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