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Why future tech is ‘disruptive’ to infrastructure plans


National Infrastructure Commission commissioner Sir John Armitt has outlined the importance of future technology to the delivery of UK infrastructure.

Armitt – also president of the ICE – is currently leading a sub-committee of the commission to draw up a national needs assessment for UK infrastructure to 2050.

Speaking today at the final evidence session of the National Needs Assessment (NNA), Armitt explained that while the impact of new technology is inevitable, the challenge will be ensuring that any infrastructure decisions are not rendered redundant by technological advances.

“The impact of technological change is always going to be an important issue,” he said. “However, people tend to level the criticism that it’s almost impossible to predict technological change, particularly in ICT, when the rate of change is so rapid. Are you going to get caught out by decisions that become null and void because of the rate of change of technology?”

James Stewart, chairman of global infrastructure practice at KPMG, agreed that it is difficult to anticipate developments in technology and admitted that they are likely to have a “disruptive” effect on infrastructure planning.

“We’ll see technology change the dynamics of infrastructure. It will change the way we use infrastructure as well as the way we live,” he said. “It’s very difficult to predict what infrastructure will look like in 25 years, but it’s clear that technology will be disruptive to planning decisions…Take Hyperloop, for example. What will that do to high speed rail and the money we spend on it?”

In a blog post outlining the work undertaken by the NNA panel to date, Armitt said some key recurring themes have emerged. As well as future technology, he highlighted the importance of devolving powers to allow leaders to operate effectively at a local level; the need for better understanding of the interdependence of infrastructure systems; and the crucial role of the energy sector.

“Energy is without doubt our most vital network due to the role it plays in ensuring all the other networks – transport, water, waste and ICT – function effectively and can meet future demand,” he said. “With capacity margins reducing is it possible to deliver ambitious plans across other sectors, if we have not yet addressed our energy issues?”

The NNA panel’s findings are expected to be published in October 2016.

More than 400 organisations and individuals have engaged with the NNA to contribute to the assessment. While Armitt said he has been encouraged by the level of engagement, he acknowledges that the final recommendations are likely to fuel some debate. “It’s a complex story and no matter how we put [the assessment] together there will always be areas for debate and things that are criticised,” he said.

Want to continue the future tech debate?

New Civil Engineer has announced dates for the 2016 Future Tech Forum.

When: 14-15 September 2016

Where: The Crystal, London

To register your interest for more information, click here.

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