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Why infrastructure businesses should enter a constant state of hack

MMDV is co-creating InfraHack with hackathon specialists HackPartners. Our aim? Finding innovative solutions to infrastructure challenges. HackPartners’ CEO River Tamoor Baig explains the thinking behind the event.

HackPartners grew its reputation with HackTrain, which helped the rail industry identify opportunities for digital innovation. How did that come about?

I spent three years travelling in the North of England, where I got very emotional about the failings of the rail network. I kept asking the train conductors and guards: Why is the WiFi down? Why does nobody ever give feedback? But answers were always hard to come by.

One day, a conductor invited me to join him as he checked fares, and he answered many of my questions. I started to see just how complex the rail network had become. When even the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter are being caught off guard, how is an industry with 200 years of baggage supposed to cope?

What did you do next?

I offered to hold a 48-hour hackathon that brought together software developers, graphic designers and entrepreneurs. We challenged them to create tech prototypes that would solve some of the rail industry’s biggest challenges.

We then set about helping rail companies save money and change their business models. A lot of them no longer see digital as a threat, but as a valuable toolkit for improving customer experience and making their own jobs a little easier. That’s really satisfying.

We get a lot of young people from the rail industry in our hackathons – maybe 20% of attendees. These champions return to their businesses and convince others that they should use digital differently. So the momentum is growing.

Why infrastructure?

Infrastructure makes sense as the next frontier for HackPartners. Aside from health and finance, perhaps, no other industry impacts as many people. Due to increases in demand, ageing assets, and changes in user behaviour, the potential for digital innovation to improve new and existing infrastructure is huge.

Digital transformation is a challenge that can’t be ducked. Hackathons may sound geeky, but they offer a business model for tomorrow’s digital organisations. In many ways, they are a microcosm of a thriving social enterprise. It’s well worth getting involved now and seeing how they work for yourself.

What can attendees expect at InfraHack?

There was a good example from our HackTrain event. The Office of Road & Rail (ORR) challenged us to help them track the performance of Network Rail’s Major Enhancements Projects more efficiently. The developers came up with a tool that allows the ORR to predict and prevent projects from going over budget and being delayed, potentially saving millions of pounds.

Ask yourself: how could something similar work for your business? We collected challenges from industry stakeholders and worked with them to unlock datasets never before released to the public. The more datasets, the better the outcomes. In May, we’ll let our tech experts loose on them. Mott MacDonald submitted its own challenge to the hack - how to effectively connect design data with construction data for better decision making.

What are you most excited about?

The focus will be on innovation: smart infrastructure that uses Internet of Things technologies, performance optimisation through data analytics and machine learning and new commercial business models. How can attendees solve these challenges with new technologies such as augmented reality, artificial intelligence and drones? It should be fun.

Let’s be realistic. Innovation is tough graft. You need to make mistakes, then learn from them. But the good news is that innovators can expect plenty of support to take their idea from concept to realisation, and then sell it to a demanding market. Following the event, the best ideas stand a chance of being funded by MMDV and developed into pilot schemes, and ultimately viable market propositions. It’s all to gain, and nothing to lose.

The first InfraHack will run from 16-19 May 2019. For more information on Mott MacDonald Digital Ventures visit: www.mmdv.com

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