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Lord Mair calls smart infrastructure “transformative”

Combining physical infrastructure with digital infrastructure has “transformative potential”, according to comments made by University of Cambridge professor of geotechnical engineering Lord Mair during a recent House of Lords debate.

He was speaking during a debate on improved digital understanding that was opened by Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho.

“Technology is changing our world at a speed we have never seen before, a speed that I believe will now never be reversed,” she said. “That is a challenge, but if we allow ourselves to awaken we can make it a source of tremendous opportunity: if we seize them, if we own them, we can harness the power of these technologies to address the other great challenges we face. I am calling today for digital understanding to be improved everywhere because I believe it is central to our ability to create better outcomes for people in the next century.”

Mair, who is also head of the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction at Cambridge, added his comments on the transformative potential that digital data brings to the future of infrastructure.

“Our infrastructure, which I will use as an example, is vital for our economy and our society,” he said. “More importantly, we need smart infrastructure. By this, we mean combining physical infrastructure with digital infrastructure. Bridges can have sensors measuring all kinds of parameters, as can our tunnels and buildings – indeed, any type of infrastructure. We will be able to know when a bridge or a tunnel is overstressed, requires attention or is reaching the end of its useful life. Sensors on our infrastructure are part of the ‘internet of things’ – myriad smart devices that collect and transmit data.

“Innovative sensors – fibre optics and wireless devices – have recently been installed at more than 100 sites, providing important and unique new data. However, to be of any use, the data from sensors on infrastructure will require understanding, interpretation and management – crucial digital skills. Vast amounts of data themselves are of little use. We need to turn data into knowledge. All data must be critically interpreted and managed, and the implications properly understood. The limitations and implications of unreliable data need to be fully appreciated by the users of the data. Full digital understanding is needed for this.

“These skills relate principally to our engineers and scientists, and to our technologies and industrial strategy. They are in the category of the digital worker and the digital maker, as defined by the Digital Skills Taskforce. These required skills are significantly beyond those of the ordinary digital citizen, who may be reasonably confident with day-to-day activities such as communicating, finding information and purchasing goods or services. We need to convert many more digital citizens into digital workers.

“The Government’s Green Paper Building Our Industrial Strategy highlights the importance of enhancing digital skills at all levels of society. In responding to the Green Paper, the Royal Academy of Engineering reported that the engineering community would like to see a general computing GCSE introduced, as well as increased and sustained support for computer science. Also, computing should be designated a core subject in schools.

“The importance of more emphasis in primary schools on STEM subjects, including digital skills, will surely lead to improved digital understanding at all levels in our society.”

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