If anything was likely to convince the market about the seriousness with which Amey views the development of smart infrastructure, then the recruitment of Rick Robinson as its IT director must be it.
Robinson, who joined to lead Amey’s smart data and technology team 18 months ago, first began programming computers at the age of 10 and his passion for technology and how it can be used to improve the interaction of ordinary people with the built environment is infectious.
Although the idea of smart infrastructure has become something of a buzzword recently, for Robinson, much of the thinking around it has been wrong. Instead of starting with technology, he says we must start with people and think about how to improve lives.
To demonstrate, he makes a compelling analogy with transport infrastructure.
“Most of the UK’s cities have persitsent, multiply deprived areas just outside the centre, which is also where you have highest concentration of transport infrastructure,” he explains.
“That infrastructure was built in the interest of the city centre and not of the people who live next door to it.
“For me the point is that if we don’t get technology infrastructure right in the city, real people will be affected. We can’t just do it in the name of macroeconomic interest; it’s the overall social, economic and environmental outcomes, including local effects that are important.”
Outcomes are important
For Robinson, who leads a thriving team of six at Amey, “outcomes” is a much repeated word. As he puts it: “Outcome is the most important thing – if you’re not getting that right then you shouldn’t be doing it.”
And in Robinson’s view, those outcomes of infrastructure development – “smart” or otherwise – have been largely overlooked for too long. He describes the idea of smart infrastructure and smart cities as “an uneasy marriage” of two ideas born in the mid 1990s: digital infrastructure and smart communities, both of which began to arise in the early days of the internet.
Is it just about technology
Two decades on, Robinson says the question that any organisation thinking about smarter infrastructure must face up to is disarmingly simple: “Are we talking about just technology, or are we talking about social, economic and environmental outcomes?”
His answer: “Smart for me is about marrying up the tremendous new capabilities we have with the outcomes we want to achieve in society.”
Robinson’s role at Amey is to do just that, by working within the company to develop new and better technology, and even more importantly by working in partnership with both the public and private sector.
It is through collaboration, he insists, that it is possible to take the outcomes based principles that should underpin smarter infrastructure and make them palatable in a necessarily commercial environment.
amey rick robinson 2016
“The challenging thing is it’s hard to make a business case out of it,” says Robinson. “If you take these ideas to a bank and they ask about return on investment then it’s a really difficult question to answer.
“The reason I joined Amey is that the business model fits right into that. Our outcomes are about how we deliver our services to the general public. We keep fresh water flowing, we take away the sewage, we keep power on. While we do all of these things, our markets create an incentive for us to invest in technology: to be competitive, to be effective, and to keep our customers happy.
“So that investment in technology is about keeping services effective and creating benefits that are social, economic and environmental because that’s what our customers want.”
Amey’s smart data and technology team was formed in 2014. Since it reached its present size last year, it has assessed 160 of what it terms “candidate ideas”, which can be either internal or client-based projects involving technology or data. Of these, the team has carried out or is carrying out around 20, with another 10 in “active development”.
An example of how one of these projects is helping a local authority partner can be found in Staffordshire, where Amey is working with the county council and its utilities and telecoms providers using a “smart city platform” to coordinate streetworks between organisations.
The project is all about collecting data to help the council run its services better.
Impact on the public
“This means we can visualise the impact of our work and minimise the impact on the public,” enthuses Robinson. “All of that directly creates cost efficiencies in streetworks, reduces the impact of disruption and, even more, we now have a whole load of data about what’s going on in Staffordshire that we’re sharing with the council and with local people and businesses.”
Amey is also involved in the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s self-driving vehicle project being piloted in Oxfordshire, alongside Oxford University’s mobile robotics group Oxbotica. Robinson believes projects such as this can help Amey better serve its partners in the future.
“We’re interested for two reasons,” he explains. “First, several of our local authority customers for whom we manage local highways are very interested in the impact that self-driving vehicles will have on them. Secondly, there’s a more direct link to the technology we operate; there is clearly interaction between self-driving vehicles and traffic lights, for example.”
Adding value with technology
Robinson says the pilot project is a key example of how, potentially, new technology can “add value to public sector infrastructure”, whether through creating cost-efficiencies or providing data about how it is used.
But while some projects are what he describes as “top-down”, driven by government and often publicly funded, Robinson is equally excited about projects that are developed by small businesses and communities themselves.
Amey is working in Plymouth with Design for Social Change, a company which is carrying out a programme to attempt to improve local infrastructure, with a particular emphasis on cycling, by engaging with local people on social media and encouraging them to share information, ideas and data.
Sharing and challenging
“To me that’s a great project as it demonstrates what happens when a big company like us shares ideas and challenges with the entrepreneurial businesses and communities.”
Robinson believes that central government should also play a part in helping drive the smart infrastructure agenda, but this again requires a focus on outcomes. “In our conversations with government we need to raise the economic argument about what the impact of technology is. Then you can talk to people who are thinking seriously about things like the devolution agenda and how that can be used to drive intelligent infrastructure.”
But while the money and motivation might have to come from government, the ideas that can drive better, smarter infrastructure should be driven by the entrepreneurial spirit that clearly fuels much of what Robinson does.
He says his team at Amey has a rare licence to try out ideas, both internally and externally.
“We don’t really know until we try them,” he explains. “It’s the entrepreneurs’ mantra of ‘fail fast’. We try a lot of things but at every step we ask ‘is this working?’ ‘Is this the right thing to do?’ That’s where you get to the point where you invest the appropriate amount of resources, by focusing only on the things that are working. If you look at the success of most leading companies they focus on the things that are working.”
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