Digital transformation is needed for the highways sector to achieve significantly improved outcomes, says Neill Brauders, head of product for Mott MacDonald’s Moata digital twins platform.
We all appreciate that highways are complex and most know that the traditional approach to managing a complex system has been to break it into manageable parts. It allows specialism and optimisation of particular activities. However, the penalty is that those activities are siloed and understanding of the system is piecemeal. This is a problem when it comes to maintaining, enlarging or enhancing the network because it is difficult to see both how an intervention will impact on the wider road system, and where capital investment will deliver the greatest benefit. It makes information sharing difficult between organisations and inhibits agility.
As an approach, breaking complex systems into discrete parts is becoming outdated.
The highways sector has long been a prime candidate for digital transformation, which offers the potential to achieve proper integration within organisations and across supply chains, and dynamic information sharing between them all. Digital transformation holds the potential to identify those issues that most need solving and focus management attention, capital and resources on them. In many infrastructure sectors, it is enabling supply chain organisations to better align themselves with their clients’ objectives. And for road users, it offers the promise of greater capacity, improved safety and more reliable journeys.
There are challenges to address: The extent of highways and the rapid evolution of society, the economy and technology itself mean that digital requirements are ever-evolving.
Understanding infrastructure as a system
Digital transformation needs to start with seeing infrastructure for what it is – a system of systems made up of many interconnected, interdepended assets that is in constant use. A systems view enables one to look afresh at the highways network – aware of but not blinkered by traditional segmentation. The aim is to focus effort and investment on monitoring, modelling and controlling the parts of the network and the activities that will deliver the greatest benefit. That is the key to creating digital solutions that remain viable within a dynamic industry.
Applications include the optimisation of asset management over its lifecycle, the management of classes of asset across the network, carbon and cost management in new highways assets, tracking of asset condition, the mitigation of climate impacts on highways operation, congestion-busting, and the continuous improvement of construction and maintenance operations. In reality, there are many benefits that haven’t been imagined yet, but will bring benefit for owners, operators, suppliers and users alike.
Strategy, business processes, people, vision and organisational capability all need to be considered alongside technology, to create a truly effective system. The art and science developing cost-effective and value-adding digital solutions is in judging the correct balance. Many systems have been expensive and under-utilised. A deep understanding of the sector – what we call ‘domain expertise’ – is a prerequisite alongside digital know-how.
Innovation from within
The highways sector is modernising fast. There are more opportunities for a diverse cast of new professionals, bringing digital as well as engineering, planning , traffic management and asset management skills. Systems architects, software analysts, data scientists and product managers are all essential roles within highways.
We are already operating in this way, dedicated to combining our infrastructure knowledge with our digital expertise to turn data into meaningful information for the highways sector. Solutions such as our digital twin platform Moata provide data analytics and real-time insight to optimise asset performance. Our objective on all digital projects is to make any investment worthwhile quickly, returning short-term as well as long-term value for our clients. Our approach is collaborative – we’re here to achieve digital transformation for the highways sector, together.
Neill Brauders is one of the guest speakers at this year’s Highways UK. His fireside chat with Adam Talbot from Connect Plus Services titled ‘A whole system approach to digital transformation’ is at 11.40am UK time on 6 November. You can watch it by registering here.