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We must plan now for technology advances

Google self driving car at Googleplex

The University of Cambridge is one of a number of business, industry, academic and environmental organisations to unite in a nationwide call for evidence on the UK’s future infrastructure requirements.

The National Needs Assessment, led by the ICE, will develop a long-term vision for UK infrastructure development – with the important objective of providing decision-makers with clear, evidence-based strategic options for policy making and investment programmes.

A key element will be the consideration of new and emerging technologies and disruptive trends that may influence future infrastructure needs.

Much of the UK’s existing infrastructure is old and no longer fit for purpose. In its State of the Nation: Infrastructure 2014 report ICE states that not one of the sectors analysed was “fit for the future” and only one sector was “adequate for now”. The need to future-proof existing and new infrastructure is of paramount importance for supporting economic growth and productivity and meeting this requirement is a recurring theme in industry documents and discussions.

Existing infrastructure is challenged by the need to increase load and usage – be that amount of passengers carried, numbers of vehicles or volume of water used – and the requirement to maintain the existing infrastructure while operating at current capacity.

Increased usage is not the sole concern; the changing demographics of an older population will alter the way we access our infrastructure and the demands we place upon it. Modelling the future, both in terms of the infrastructure assets themselves and of our society, plays a vital role in promoting the success of our cities and economies. Within this approach, future-proofing, future-modelling and end-life planning for existing assets must be combined with methods of extending useful life.

Disruptive trends resulting from technology advances could radically change future infrastructure needs. How will the rise of autonomous vehicles and drone deliveries change demand on the UK’s roads and highways, and what are the wider environmental and social impacts of these developments?

Advances in construction techniques could dramatically change maintenance strategies as well as creating leaner structures. Self-healing concrete research aims to produce a “material for life”, with an inbuilt first aid kit that repairs itself over and over again, reducing deterioration and increasing the design life with significant impact on asset maintenance.

New and emerging technologies have the potential to transform our approach to design, construction and management of our infrastructure assets. Modern infrastructure and construction is already benefiting from the innovative use of novel technologies in sensor and data management, such as fibre optics, wireless sensor networks, energy harvesting, micro electro mechanical systems and computer vision.

The Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction at Cambridge has pioneered deploying these technologies by instrumenting a considerable variety of structures across a number of key infrastructure projects, including Crossrail, National Grid, the Royal Mail Tunnel and CERN tunnels, and masonry arches at London Bridge.

The engineering community cannot predict the future of the industry with certainty. It can, however, through an evidence-based approach, make strategic recommendations now to shape infrastructure investment for the future.

  • Lord Robert Mair is professor of Civil Engineering at University of Cambridge, and a member of the National Needs Assessment Executive Group

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