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14 April 2012

Modernising National Infrastructure

Tag(s): Politics & Economics

Professor Brian Collins CB, FREng is the new Professor of Engineering Policy at University College, London (UCL).  Until recently he was Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) to both the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Department for Transport (DfT). I had the pleasure of working with him quite closely in both these roles. I was therefore pleased to receive an invitation to his inaugural lecture which he delivered last week on the theme of “Sustainably modernising national infrastructure – an opportunity for engineering policy.” The mission of UCL Engineering is nothing less than “Changing the World” and in Brian Collins they have the right man to develop policy ideas and seek to influence the policy makers.

He began by explaining how he first developed an interest in infrastructure. He was born in South East London in the midst of bomb damage from the V2 bombers. Initially the flying bombs were aimed at the Tower of London but through deception the British persuaded the Germans that they had overreached into North London. Thus the Germans shortened their range and succeeded in hitting South East London. One V2 hit a tree and was diverted from its path when Brian’s mother was pregnant with him. Otherwise it would have hit their house and he would not have been delivering this lecture! His father was in a reserved occupation as a Quantity Surveyor for Middlesex County Council. Following a bomb raid it was his task to assess the damage and his decision whether to demolish, repair or rebuild. One of Brian’s earliest memories is of seeing the rosebay willow herb or “fireseed” populating the bomb sites as fire helps its dormant seeds to generate. It became the county flower of London.  After the war his father looked after the conversion of stately homes into residential homes for orphaned children. Brian would accompany his father on inspection visits and so got early exposure to the importance of construction, plumbing, wiring and so on.

After taking his doctorate in astrophysics at Oxford University Brian’s first job was in the solar observatory opposite the Matterhorn. His journey to work was on a mountain train that had to cope with perpetual snow. Through intelligent Swiss engineering Brian only recalls one interruption to service through weather in seven years.  Brian then joined the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment (RSRE) when it was formed in 1976 through the amalgamation of earlier research establishments. Over time through further mergers it evolved into the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA). The bulk of this was privatised as QinetiQ in 2001. At that time I was CEO of NXT which had a joint venture with QinetiQ on speech synthesis and recognition technology. Some of the most important technologies that emerged from the work of RSRE include radar, thermal imaging, liquid crystal displays and speech synthesis. Its work also contributed a great deal to computer science with such developments as the VIPER high integrity microprocessor used in avionics.

He then enjoyed a spell with GCHQ responsible for programming the IT infrastructure.  One of its satellite dishes, a thirty tonne dish costing £2.5 million, was literally blown away by the force of a gale. Through experiences like these Brian learnt about the fragility of vital infrastructure. He also programmed the IT infrastructure that was then used for the human genome project.

The club of CSAs has only been in existence for ten years. First put together by Professor Sir David King as Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government it formed a useful bridge between different government departments which otherwise are not joined up. Brian told us that the lessons he had learned in the role of CSAs were that policies beyond the life of a parliament were not important and consequently sustainability was not on the agenda. Invariably policies and programmes had to change following a change of government. Infrastructure is now chiefly looked after by the market. It is regulated individually and operated locally. Politicians have devolved responsibility but are still held accountable by the media and the public. He had worked through the effects of snow, volcanic ash, strikes and floods and the government was expected to have instant solutions to all these crises.

He considered that the nature of good infrastructure, whether in energy, transport, water, waste or information and communication technology was that it should be shared at the national and regional level. It should be resilient to shock and well managed, attracting continuous investment. It can be done as in the case of the excellent regeneration of the area north of King’s Cross.

Britain was the world leader in the development of infrastructure in the nineteenth century largely built by private enterprise and public subscription. In the 1950s to the 1970s this was expanded under state control. Then the UK again took the lead with widespread privatisation from the 1980s on. In the 1990s new forms of ownership were tried with Public/Private/Partnerships. In summary our infrastructure was largely built over 150 years ago and completed 60 years ago. Not much has happened since. Major unregulated growth is interdependent but most have been privatised and there is now no central governance of any aspect of infrastructure as a system.

Our railway network has changed little in a century. While new motorways have been built in the last 50 years the arterial ‘A’ road network is based on the Roman roads. Car journeys still account for 85% of all journeys with light vans the fastest growing mode. In terms of policy what was required was an understanding of how to manage such transport using data and communication technology. Brian paid tribute to the report on Intelligent Mobility by the Automotive Council to which I have contributed. [i]As for air travel Brian illustrated his point about traffic density by reference to a YouTube video called A Day in the Life of Air Traffic all Over the World[ii]

Brian is concerned that too often our reaction to a crisis is politically motivated just to show some action. Thus in relation to the current drought in the south of England a ban has been imposed on the use of hosepipes. But only 7% of domestic consumption is outdoor. Flushing toilets is 30% while personal washing is 33% and clothes washing another 20%. Only by making inroads into this usage without compromising hygiene will much difference be made.

In the case of electricity with 3G coverage and broadband usage increasing fast the carbon emissions from all the banks of servers employed in meeting this increasing demand has overtaken those of air travel. And yet we are committed to reducing energy use per capita by 80%

Professor Collins welcomed the Prime Minister’s statement on 19th March, 2012 stating that there was an urgent need to repair our national infrastructure. This was the first time in many years that a Prime Minister had talked of the nation’s infrastructure. Mt Cameron announced a National Infrastructure Plan and since Professor Collins had made inputs to this he obviously welcomed it though he deplored the reference in the statement to “magic.” No, it was good engineering!

There is a clear business case because if we have good infrastructure we can generate export sales by helping others to rebuild theirs. There is also a good ethical case for this.

There is to be a new Cabinet Committee to focus on delivery. 65% of all the infrastructure is privately owned so it will need to consider how to interact with industry and consider new funding models. It will also need to engage with the public in getting its acceptance. To work at a national scale infrastructure needs to be based on engineering that is resilient and sustainable, is low carbon, is socially acceptable, and gives economic performance and service quality.

Critical technologies will include new sensors, new composite materials, embedded connectivity, adaptive systems, and plastic electronics.

Brian posed some key questions: Can we learn from others? Can we change habits by good design? How can we convert society from consumption and competition to conservation and collaboration?

Brian has a particularly strong interest in the interdependency of infrastructure and the need for systemic understanding and control. He gave the example of Hurricane Katrina and the link between power and water in the case of floods. As the water rose in New Orleans the power was knocked out. With no power the ATMs failed. People quickly worked out that their fridges and freezers would also fail so with no cash they rushed to the stores to loot them for canned foods. That process from the impact of the hurricane to a failure of law and order took just 8 hours.

So what should be the next steps? Brian proposed some pilots to test methodologies in interdependencies, resilience evaluation, whole life cycle costing and procurement methods. We should move to a method for infrastructure data collection. We need better regulatory coherence (there are 37 regulatory bodies involved.) We need to encourage research and innovation against a clear engineering roadmap. But we will also need to encourage skills development. In modernising National Infrastructure we don’t just need analysts, economists and politicians. We need engineering to complement their work. There is a key role for knowledge in framing engineering policy questions. Brian observes that we have lots of analysts and no synthesists. In other words you get paid for breaking things up.

Afterwards in conversation with Brian I told him that my father had also been a Quantity Surveyor. In post war Manchester some of my early memories were of helping my father measure up building sites on bomb sites to build the foundations of large scale extensions to Manchester University. So similarly I had had instilled at an early age that intense interest in the practical. What works? While I had gone into a career in marketing I was always looking for the practical solution. And then I crossed over into technology where I concentrated on finding practical ways to sell practical products.

An article that Professor Collins wrote on the subject in 2010 can be downloaded at[iii]

Copyright David C Pearson 2012 All rights reserved

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