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Smarter Infrastructure | Get smart or suffer the chaos: technology to reshape civil enginnering

oyster users

Civil engineers will need to keep a smart pace if infrastructure is to keep up with rapid changes in technology.

The House of Commons science and technology select committee’s Big Data Dilemma report, published in April, said that 90% of the electronic data in the world was created in the last two years. The total amount of global data is predicted to grow 40% year on year for the next decade. By 2020 it is estimated about 50bn devices will be connected to the internet, and not just smartphones, but also wearable technology and other objects.

Meanwhile, the report says that only 1.7% of European Union enterprises make full use of advanced digital technologies, while 41% do not use them at all. A digital skills gap is approaching “crisis levels”, and will only grow exponentially as big data reaches further into the economy.

oyster users

oyster users

The Oyster system captures large volumes of passenger information

It comes as Transport for London’s Oyster electronic cards for travel around the capita;l approach their 15th anniversary: autonomous car trials take place around the world; and fibreoptics are increasingly on the spec sheet alongside concrete and steel.

Incremental improvements aside, many industry leaders believe that if civil engineering is to capitalise on this revolution, radical and systemic change is required now.

One of the organisations at the vanguard of digitisation has been Transport for London (TfL). With more than 5,000 developers now using its open data website, about 400 apps have been produced that inform operators and save commuters untold hours of commuting and confusion.

Deloitte estimates about £58M/pa is saved, in terms of time and other benefits. And it costs us about £1M to make sure those data feeds are reliable. So there is a significant gain there

Kuldeep Gharatya, Transport for London


“[Management consultant] Deloitte estimates about £58M/pa is saved, in terms of time and other benefits. And it costs us about £1M to make sure those data feeds are reliable. So there is a significant gain there,” says TfL head of innovation technical strategy and performance Kuldeep Gharatya.

The idea behind the Oyster card dates back to the 1980s after a seemingly innocuous development: passenger gates had to be opened and closed faster to accommodate more foot traffic at underground stations. From a humble beginning, Oyster now covers 652 stations, 8,500 buses and tracks every movement of millions of commuters in real time. And with contactless payment, now the concept of a ticket is fast disappearing.

Getting to work

“Nobody wants to buy a ticket, they just want to get to work,” says Gharatya.

And “getting to work” – once a two step process of get on, get off – is now an interactive interplay of apps, route choice, electronic banking, real-time feedback and cctv monitoring. More data naturally means more choice for passengers… or does it?

“It might be positive for consumers, from the perspective of increased choice. But in a world where capacity is strained, and externalities reign supreme, that choice is not always the best outcome,” says TfL director of customer experience Shashi Verma.

digital railway

digital railway

Rail networks are increasingly gathering information for planning maintenance and traffic forecasting

“We base everything we do around measuring customer metrics, but the fact is that at 8.45am on a weekday we cannot provide enough capacity. When I joined TfL 14 years ago, London’s population was 7.1M (2002). It is 8.6M today. In 14 years it’s grown 25%.”

KPMG director and former Costain airports sector director Ross Agnew is a leading player in asset management in the UK. He says infrastructure providers need to think how consumers will respond in an information-rich world.

“We will start to make fundamentally different decisions about infrastructure. We won’t be obsessed with building capacity and resilience, we’ll be making infrastructure responsive to the user, we’ll be thinking about how it changes short term, how it can respond,” Agnew says.

Track and respond

Operators can now track and respond to crises in real time, monitoring customer satisfaction through facial recognition and social media activity. And as more is learned about how infrastructure is used, it might be planned, insured and costed differently.

“The exciting thing about technology is about linking customers to infrastructure; it’s not about building more, but structuring it differently,” says Agnew.

But Agnew doesn’t think the industry is structured to respond to future challenges.

New marketplace

“Frankly I think the contractors and service industries have failed to respond to the new marketplace. I think it’s time to build the platform, allow the disruptors in, and build a new marketplace.”

As with most revolutions, the young are leading the charge. But a developing skills shortage might mean companies will have to fight for skilled applicants.

“Working with schools and universities, asking students whether they want to work in construction, this is what comes back: we’re not interested, it’s boring, it’s just concrete and stuff,” says Skanska building information modelling (BIM) and digital technology specialist Niall Kane.



Data networks will help engineers plan infrastructure more efficiently

“We have a whole generation of hackers and gamers, and that’s the kind of knowledge and skills we really need,” he says.

Skanska has an ”engineering-games platform” that brings hackers, gamers, estimators and surveyors together, resulting in video games that simulate construction, on-site safety and a “how-to” for avoiding cable strikes.

“In one example, students must choose building components for a classroom, balancing trade-offs including protecting the environment, saving costs, or investing in durability.

Feet dragging

But in the office, Kane says some in the industry are still dragging their feet.

“As a work culture, things are still very Victorian, but the same people at home will book holidays online, and use Google Maps freely.”

Drones, augmented reality and driverless cars are now reaching a rate of precision that they will soon reshape the most mundane of everyday tasks.

Data collection was done with humans with clipboards, but we’ve migrated up the hierarchy

Mark Enzer, Mott MacDonald

Which begs the question, when automation becomes commonplace, how much actual engineering will be left to do? Mott MacDonald director Mark Enzer believes the nature of the job will inevitably change, as the harvest of our ”digital abundance” is reaped.

“Data collection was done with humans with clipboards, but we’ve migrated up the hierarchy, and will continue to do so as technology develops,” says Enzer.

Further up the hierarchy are decisions about regulation and governance – how do you maintain reliability and remove uncertainty in a transport system, while still allowing the rapid pace of innovation? How will governments adapt and change under radically different funding models for transport? The question of what infrastructure to make “smart”, when, and how much carbon emissions it will create, will ultimately be a question of political will and available resources.

“Data analytics can do a lot, but we need a new type of governance, new business models,” says São Paulo City Hall innovation director professor Ciro Biderman. He leads mobiLab, the city’s mobility laboratory for open data.

Magic silver bullet

“Big players in the market are trying to find generic, global solutions,” he says. ”I encounter this as a practitioner a lot, they say they have the magic silver bullet that will solve all your problems. When what you really have is small developers making small apps that solve a small, simple problem, using whatever data libraries they can find on the web, and doing it fast, and pointing to the best solution.”

Speaking at a metro rail conference in London, Biderman had a go-to list of tips for those wishing to engineer the future:

  • Ditch large control centres “Those big video-walls. It’s nonsense. When you think “control centre” you think centralisation. But everything is moving towards decentralisation – smartphones in your pocket.”
  • Be aware “Big Data” often means “Big Hype”. “It’s not important how much data you have, it’s what you do with that data. The term Smart Cities is more often than not a way to sell hardware and software, technological products.”
  • Open your data “If you are serious about data, then you have to be serious about privacy. But my feeling about this in the field is that you are guarding against something that might happen, while missing out on something much bigger.”

For some young players in the market this is all assumed knowledge. Zipabout technical director Daniel Chick says his company is already using data (including Twitter and Facebook posts) on passenger sentiment to provide business intelligence for transport companies.

“Typically all of the sentiment is negative. But actually if you look at the data at scale, mapping it down to particular services, you can see if some trains are “happy” or “sad”. But then some operators have a higher average than others, and that’s useful.”

We run the (train) service 365 days a year, and take a survey on only two of them. It’s about collecting the data more regularly, then passing it back up for them (passengers), as and when it’s usable for them

River Tamorr Baig, Hack Partners

Meanwhile River Tamoor Baig, co-founder of Hack Partners, is pushing a consultancy dedicated to driving innovation within the railways.

He says a major barrier to innovation is collection of data, which is often carried out on train services once every six months.

“We run the (train) service 365 days a year, and take a survey on only two of them. It’s about collecting the data more regularly, then passing it back up for them (passengers), as and when it’s usable for them.”

Overturning business models

Baig quoted examples of Netflix and Über as notable successes, which have overturned business models (including in some cases, their own) at breakneck speed.

“The lack of fear, and the speed at which they did that, was a reason why they’ve done well,” says Baig.

Open-source data, 3D printing and advances in BIM also change the way infrastructure is constructed. Entire houses are being printed in China, while closer to home there is research into subsurface robots to repair potholes and pipe bursts.

Digital fabrication

“Digital fabrication is going to change the way we make buildings, but that’s just the most obvious bit,” says Wikihouse designer Alastair Parvin. The Wikihouse is an open source design program which enables consumers to create their own houses which can then be prefabricated for assembly on site.

The leader of the non-profit Wikihouse organisation is attempting to disrupt the housing industry and disrupt the current “buy, build, borrow and bugger off” model, as he calls it.

“We are sharing design solutions as [computer] code – so we’re moving away from a system where the same problems are being solved again and again.”

The Wikihouse model allows unskilled users to design and build a home, coding elements like cost, dimensions weight, environmental impact into easy-to-use software. The design then gets sent out to manufacturers, often in small factories or home garages. Then the “digital lego” or “mother of all Ikea kits” is brought together and assembled on-site, without the need for professional labour.

Self building

“It’s a system that radically puts the end user at the heart of the process, building homes for themselves,” says Parvin.

And despite being potentially proving ruinous for the construction industry as we know it, Parvin says “rumours of the death of the design profession have been overstated”. 

“When you think about it, we’re going to be on a planet with 9bn people, and we’ve got to wean ourselves off fossil fuels in the same period. The odds of us running out of design problems is pretty slim.”

If there’s one thing that HackTrain’s Baig and many other experts agree on, it’s that infrastructure providers must keep up with the pace of technological change.

“The ones that stay safe, will probably over the next 10 to 15 years, lose market share, not realising where or how it happened.”

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