Comment: How to drive better street works

Michelle Scarsbrook

Michelle Scarsbrook, commercial sector director for software developer Sopra Steria, discusses how we can drive a better street works process in the UK.

The drive towards net zero, smart cities and a connected world supported by 5G has the potential to add to a new era of road disruption in the short to medium term.

Against this is a need to keep the public informed and minimise any disruption that affects the quality of life for citizens – from road users and cyclists to business and households relying on utility services.

As we know, keeping this disruption to a minimum isn’t always possible.

Creating data-driven works and data-literate workforces

There is a need for the street works sector to evolve quickly, not only to minimise disruption but also to support the UK’s drive towards a carbon-neutral and connected country.

We’ve already seen progress in this and the Government is considering further reforms to the Street Manager platform for highway authorities, utility companies, and contractors carrying out works to cope with the expected increase in works. 

Some companies have also developed an automated and data-informed approach to jobs. For example, M Group Services has been operating this way for the last 10 years and is currently on target to deliver over two million street works transactions in 2021.

This is largely down to the introduction of ground-breaking Robotic Process Automation (RPA) technology to retrieve asset location information and handle the high volume, repeatable tasks, as well as validation and grid plotting, noticing / permitting and registration activity.

In turn, this has helped to minimise disruption to both the organisations involved with the street works but also to the general public who use the highways for their everyday activities.

While digitalisation is critical, organisations shouldn’t overlook the workforce and must ensure it is successfully trained and properly accredited to be effective in the digital future.

Additionally, firms can also work with third-party organisations to help them overcome barriers to digital change and mitigate against the hidden costs of innovation.

Embracing the next frontier of street-works: digital twins

However, to reach the Government’s lofty ambitions requires a further evolution through a new wave of emerging technologies including digital twins, as well as 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Digital twins will be crucial to the future success of street works, opening up opportunities for the sector to drive greater efficiencies and improvements, minimise disruption and improve customer experience.

Simply put, a digital twin is a replica of a real-world asset, be that a car, a road, or an entire city.

It differs from the traditional Building Information Model, since it can be used as an up-to-date asset management system, syncing with the real world through sensors, processes, and other data sources, and providing a comprehensive and dynamic digital replica of a real-world asset.

With all the data affecting an asset’s operations in one place, there is greater collaboration between stakeholders – from utilities to highways management – and better asset control and management, helping to limit errors and re-work.

Furthermore, through sensors and predictive analytics, the digital twin can be used to reduce street-works activity, as the sector evolves towards predictive and proactive maintenance.

Some organisations are taking this one step further and looking at self-repairing concepts, using a mix of the digital twin and robotics to eliminate all unnecessary street-works.

For example, the University of Leeds is working with the local council and other institutions under the 'Self Repairing Cities' initiative to use a mix of robotics and the digital twin to eliminate unnecessary street-works by 2050.

Meeting street works goals in the UK

To meet the UK’s net zero and digital ambitions, disruption due to roadworks is inevitable in the short term.

However, becoming data-driven and embracing emerging technology concepts, such as digital twins, will help the utility sector minimise this in the long term, while also driving greater efficiencies in jobs.

Greater collaboration between project stakeholders will be instrumental in achieving a connected future which adds to the quality of life of the UK citizen.

It will also help to avoid the daily disruptions all of us face as we look to embrace and use future technologies which require strong, stable underground infrastructure to be managed and maintained.

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