Smart sustainability: changing the way we use data and information to engineer tomorrow’s world

Leveraging the full value from data can help increase the productivity of infrastructure.
Smart sustainability: changing the way we use data and information to engineer tomorrow’s world
Director of the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (University of Cambridge) Chair of the Research Strategy Steering Group at the Centre for Digital Built Britain, and UKCRIC Thought Leader

We are living through the fourth industrial revolution - the information revolution. There has never been a better time to be an engineer. 

The increasing ubiquity of data sources about our infrastructure, from installed sensors to serendipitous data from social media, provides us with an opportunity to gain unparalleled insights into how our infrastructure is performing, how we are using it and loading it, whether it is fit for the future, and what new infrastructure we may need to invest in.

Generating large amounts of data presents an opportunity to extract and exploit its full value. However, in order to optimise the benefits of this opportunity we must change the way we perceive, manage and value the data we generate. Making the most of our data requires us to identify what information we want from the data we collect, curate it accordingly and make it accessible for future reference and use. It also requires a shift in mindset from treating data as disposable to seeing it as an asset of value in itself and as a very important tool in maintaining a physical asset.

Information management is critical to securing long-term value from our data. At the National Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (NCSIC) at the University of Cambridge, researchers are developing tools for integrating different data sources to support whole-life management of infrastructure assets and systems. Taking this approach helps organisations to understand their information retention requirements, assess risks of information losses in the long term and identify solutions to mitigate that risk.

Smarter information to effect change

Securing richer information is crucial to making better-informed decisions locally, nationally and globally. Imperatives such as climate change and finite resources mean that we cannot simply build our way out of a capacity constraint – we must make the most of resources invested previously, by understanding the remaining capacity in our existing infrastructure and using it to the full, so that new resources are only expended where needed. Being able to gain more from existing assets via the digital enhancement of mature infrastructure is both smart and sustainable.

Back in 2018, the Global Engineering Congress met in London to discuss the role of engineers in delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Building a better world means making fair decisions that benefit everyone, including those who currently do not have the advantages of living in developed economies with mature infrastructure systems.

We must use the tools and technologies at our disposal to ensure that new infrastructure, wherever it is built, is designed and delivered with consideration for the value delivered over the whole life of the asset, not just for the lowest capital cost. This means considering the operational and maintenance costs inherent in the design, and optimising for these as well as the cost of construction. Making better use of data throughout the infrastructure cycle is central because there is a clear connection between infrastructure data and the outcomes for the ultimate customers – better decisions, based on better data, lead to better outcomes.

Transformation through collaboration

UKCRIC provides a unique opportunity to bring together the best learning and scholarship available to collaborate on developing research and outputs which can be adopted by practitioners to deliver benefits for all stakeholders.

At NCSIC we work with colleagues from academia and industry to develop new sensing solutions which can address the major challenges facing our ageing infrastructure, in order to better understand our assets. This will be complemented with development of a ‘data centric engineering’ approach, through machine learning and artificial intelligence research with the Alan Turing Institute, to create the analytical tools that can help us analyse large quantities of data. This will then be interpreted to deliver insights that can be fed in at every stage in the life of an asset, ultimately informing better decisions about the need for infrastructure and the most appropriate interventions throughout life, from design through construction to operation, maintenance and end of life.

This interpretation will be aided by the development of Digital Twins, with the Centre for Digital Built Britain and UKCRIC’s DAFNI facility taking the lead in developing the principles and computational tools to enable integration of data at a range of scales from the individual asset to the city and national scale. Digital Twin models will help organise data into interoperable formats and also share data with defined levels of access to inform better policy, planning, and management decisions on the interaction between the built environment and the economy, society and the natural world.

The digital delivery of infrastructure has the potential to effect positive change. Research developments and new tools and technologies coming out of academia offer engineers new horizons. The intelligent use of digital technologies will enable us to capture the inherent value in our built assets and create a digital and smart economy that brings benefits to all.

All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. UKCRIC provides a suite of state-of-the-art experimental facilities, advanced modelling & simulation and urban observatories, all of which are used by our world-class researchers to inform and inspire the next generation of cities and infrastructure.