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Smart infrastructure makes use of the valuable insights hidden in plain sight Richard Shennan

It’s no secret that data has huge potential to make businesses more productive and to improve the through-life performance of infrastructure. Data can also prove extremely frustrating; you can invest in live data streams with countless sensors capturing vast banks of real-time information, but without the ability to turn the raw material into useful insights, that potential is lost.

The current state of data in most organisations is usually determined by historical ownership of information in a non-connected world. Simply overlaying a feast of data onto this starting point can leave organisations in a state of data stupor. Different departments have gorged independently, meaning the flow of data is disconnected and in diverse formats. The nuggets of information that could make a real difference are syphoned off and stored away, unknown to the people who could best use them. Instead of improved vision, organisations are blinded by data overload.

See the unseen

A major part of the challenge is to put the potential of big data into the context of the infrastructure domain. To gather the insight, you need to first understand the way assets are procured, designed, constructed and operated. Otherwise, you can end up with a costly technology-led transformation project that looks impressive on a tablet screen but amounts to precious little change on the balance sheet.

When you approach the problem from the asset owner’s perspective – “what do we want to make better?” rather than “how can we capture as much data as possible?” – then the results tend to be more effective. Instead of paralysis, you take control. For example, a water pumping station might only need a small number of well-positioned sensors to help cut expenditure, slow deterioration and reduce service interruptions.

Act with conviction

Clarity is an important first step, but that alone won’t turn data into smarter infrastructure. Again, understanding the way things work on the ground can avoid missed opportunities. It’s not just the physical machinery that matters, but the mechanisms of power too. Who are the people making business decisions? And who are the ones operating and maintaining the asset? Without an understanding of the organisational decision-makers, and their full buy-in and co-operation, the benefits can be half-baked.

Another hurdle is cynicism. Let’s be honest – many people in our industry are reluctant to trust digital information. They’ve been burned before. You can give them a shiny dashboard or a virtual reality device that depicts asset performance or the lay-out of pipes beneath a pavement, but will they use it? Or will they revert to old habits?

Data must be conveyed in a way that's convincing, allowing users to track its provenance over time. This could mean building confidence over years, but without that pragmatism then even the smartest innovations will just sit on the shelf. Unless you overlay digital thinking onto solid domain expertise, you won’t get the empathy or understanding that turns a good idea into a practical design.

Impact progress

Once you can see the unseen, and act with conviction, you need to convert into progress and measure impact. I believe that enhanced outcomes can always be assessed from either social, economic and environmental perspective. Of course, these three concepts aren’t new: they are the three pillars of sustainability and linked closely to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and the best solutions usually lie at the point of compatibility of all three.

Economic outcomes are in the interests of the asset owner, whether public or private, improving operational affordability and bringing better value to customers. The social side gets very interesting. Whatever industry or sector you’re involved in, the goal should be to directly or indirectly contribute to happier, healthier and more fulfilled lives. Infrastructure takes a long time to plan and construct, so how do you ensure it isn’t hopelessly out of date by the time it is built? Adaptability is key, and this means understanding how to react quickly to changing social need.

The environmental strand tends to speak for itself. Important savings can be made when you can maintain and extend the performance of assets over their lifetime, and reduced waste generally equates to reduced environmental impact. Advance planning for the end of an asset’s life is also crucial. Too often, parts and materials are needlessly discarded as an unacceptable risk, because owners don’t know their provenance or age. The notion of ‘do no harm’ should be a driver for smart infrastructure. We seek to help our clients, at a minimum, to advance at least one of the three pillars of sustainability and not adversely impact the other two.
Asset managers could be forgiven for developing a dose of data fatigue – especially if they’re yet to reap the potential benefits. The message I’ll be plugging at the Global Engineering Congress is: take heart! Making quick headway is not as complicated or costly as you might imagine.

Mott MacDonald is participating in the Global Engineering Congress to show how smart infrastructure can help deliver the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

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