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The interaction of physical and digital infrastructures David Tanner

Historically, there has been limited interaction between physical infrastructure (buildings, roads, airports, railways, cars, and utility networks) and digital infrastructure (sensors, IT and fibre & wireless communications).

In the near future, digital infrastructure will become an integral part of physical infrastructure.

By this, I mean that physical infrastructure assets were traditionally not connected to any sort of digital infrastructure. There are, of course, examples that can be thought of where the opposite has been true such as SCADA level sensors in water networks, electronic entry pass detectors in buildings, and signals on running rails on the London Underground. However, at a wide, general level, their interaction was limited.

The belief shared by many in the industry – and it is my belief too – is that things are about to change significantly. In the near future, digital infrastructure will become an integral part of physical infrastructure. This is already happening but it is set to increase on a significant scale. For example, smart electricity meters are being deployed across Europe to deliver usage insight to consumers whilst also providing better control of micro-generation. Even street lights are starting to have IP addresses to allow them to be ‘spoken to’ individually.

Underpinning this change is our ever-improving ability to measure and process data, coupled with the relative ease in which we can now transport and access that data.

The mobile phone is a good analogue for the potential scale of this change – as well as for what is driving the change. Originally intended (30-40 years ago) to simply be a method of voice communications whilst on the move, it was initially developed to become a voice and text messaging device before transforming into the ‘swiss army knife’ of communications that around twothirds of the world’s population now carries with them. Technology shifts in processors, screens, batteries (to some degree), and radio technologies have enabled this change. And with it has come the increase in the production and consumption of data. The average mobile user in many countries in the world currently consumes in excess of 1GB of data per month and this is forecast to continue its exponential growth over the coming years.

In a similar manner, the development of digital technologies is enabling the ever increasing interaction with physical infrastructure. These developments include:

  • The wider and deeper reach of fibre, supported by the wider and deeper reach of broadband wireless (and its ever increasing data carrying capabilities)
  • The development and deployment of ‘Internet of Things’ communications protocols and sensors
  • Lower cost points for devices, enabling their wider deployment (particularly when set against more ‘traditional’ methods of achieving similar ends)
  • ‘Big data’ processing – providing insights and understanding through event correlations.

And as this interaction increases we are seeing digital technology no longer simply being an addition to physical infrastructure; it is beginning to change the physical infrastructure itself. A good example of this is the build of airport car parks being undertaken with the potential future conversion to hotels, retail and office space in mind as CAVs (Connected and Autonomous Vehicles) become prevalent (and the loss of car park charges needs to be offset).

Mott MacDonald works across many of the infrastructure sectors that are being impacted by this change; it is increasingly seeing them within its projects – as well as actively working to bring the change about. I work in the digital consulting team which is seeing ever more requests both internally and externally to discuss and implement this change. It’s a very exciting place to be, and will become ever more so over the coming years as the shift continues to gain pace.

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