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Thomas the tank engine and Fat Controller monuments at Thomas land theme park in Fuji-Q Highland amusement park.

A fat controller reimagined for the digital age

Simon Harrison, Group strategic development manager

Are Fat Controllers coming back into vogue?

The Fat Controller is the commanding authority in the world-famous Thomas the Tank Engine children’s stories. When the UK privatised and unbundled its utilities and infrastructure in the 1990s it seemed we’d left the Rev W Awdry’s creation behind. However, we now have the upcoming review of the UK railway by Keith Williams for the Department for Transport. He gave a foretaste of the content in mid-July, recommending that an independent “fat controller” takes charge of day to day operation of the railways, with the government taking only a strategic responsibility.

Likewise in energy, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy recently launched a consultation on the superficially arcane but vital subject of how the codes underpinning the energy system are governed. It raises the question of an independent co-ordinating body once again, following calls from the Institute of Energy & Technology/Energy Systems Catapult ‘Future power systems architecture’ programme, amongst others.

In both cases, this is something different to economic regulation and freedom of markets. It relates to the fundamentals of how a complex system should be co-ordinated.

But it’s really important to recognise the differences between the traditional idea of a fat controller and the needs we now have of one. This is not about central control of everything within a defined geography (like all of the railway network of Awdry’s fictional Island of Sodor). Instead it’s about enabling multiple players to flourish within a system that is operationally and technically integrated.

In the case of energy, the forces shaping the need for change are multiple: decarbonisation, digitalisation, decentralisation and what might be called broadly democratisation – the desire of consumers to make their own choices and decisions about energy, which is being enabled by domestic scale renewables, storage, intelligent demand, and smart technologies such as Alexa. An energy system that allows these forces to drive innovation and change will create new propositions for consumer service, drive down costs and carbon and bring the potential for very different ways to deliver key outcomes like service resilience.

However, without the fat controller this would happen in an uncoordinated way, with thousands or millions of devices influencing what happened, with no view of how this all added together. In extremis that might mean blackouts. More likely it would mean higher costs as workarounds were found to keep things hanging together.

To an engineer like me, much of this seems obvious. No highly engineered object is developed without proper attention to systems engineering and integration. An airliner assembled from multiple components without attention to their integration would never be able to fly safely. Yet up to now we’ve not applied strategic co-ordination to the energy transformation – the overlaying of digital technology on one of the most complex systems of the twentieth century.

To my mind we need the fat controller. Less the tails and top hat, more open neck shirt and data platform. Less commander than facilitator and enabler. But, nonetheless, a fat controller – reimagined for a digital age.

Given we are now in an age where infrastructures are converging – energy, transport, the built environment, water and health – maybe we need to think about a structured network or ‘architecture’ of fat controllers, co-ordinating across infrastructures to create an effective system of systems.

In addition to thinking and acting across sectors, the next generation of fat controllers must recognise a hierarchy of decision making and optimisation at community, city, region and national scales.

With his books featuring steam engines, ships and helicopters side by side, Awdry seemed at home with systems thinking. Time for a sequel?

Simon Harrison

Group strategic development manager

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