In the modern economy it is usually the information brokers who reign supreme. Those who control the nodes of the network, who act as go-betweens for information, clients and providers, have control of a marketplace where data is more valuable than oil.
Highways, where there is a literal, physical network (still very much based on oil), is something of an exception to this rule.
The natural brokers of the roads sector are the traffic management professionals, who seem if anything closed off, niche, even overlooked, as they work high up in their urban traffic management control towers, tapping into cloud based data and streams from real-time apps in front of banks of video screens.
For heaven's sake, they don’t even have a national conference do they? Actually, they do now.
The inaugural National Traffic Managers' Conference from council directors' body ADEPT is taking place on 3 October this year at Welford Road Stadium, home of the Leicester Tigers.
Just as wider social, economic and technological changes play into their hands, ADEPT is leading traffic management out of the wings to take centre stage.
Introducing the professional
Key route network manager for Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) and chair of ADEPT's National traffic Management Forum, Mark Corbin (pictured), makes no bones about his desire to raise the profession's profile and with it gain more traction with government and co-operation with other services.
If traffic management is to unleash its full potential it has to widen its conversation, he argues, and for this it needs a national platform to stress that traffic flow is economic flow.
'People don’t understand what we do. We have to be visible. We have to take hold of shaping the future of roads,' he says.
Indeed, he looks a little forlornly at the temporary traffic management sector, suggesting that it has not benefited as it should have from the changing technological times.
'It appears to have been a little left behind in all honestly,' he says. 'There is a great need for technological enhancement in terms of deployment of equipment and training. There needs to be more work to bring these areas [traffic management and roadside temporary work] closer in my opinion.'
Mr Corbin celebrates the movement spearheaded by Highways England, the Institute of Highway Engineers and the Traffic Management Contractors Association to raise the profile of temporary traffic management work, and put a new and increased emphasis on safety and professionalism in the job that, afterall, is the one closest to the public and involves working in a live road environment.
Foundations and futures
‘We are heavily led by legislation, that will not go anywhere. The enactment of legislation provides our foundation,' Mr Corbin says.
This raises traffic management's sorest of points. The debate over giving councils power over moving traffic violations - as implementing Part 6 of Traffic Management Act 2004 would allow - has been a long and bitter one.
These powers are in force in London and the Welsh Government has offered local authorities the powers on request; however elsewhere in England the offences are still enforced by the police.
To have an Act of Parliament named after you, dedicated to you, and holding many of the tools you feel you need, and not be able to put its principles into practice understandably rankles. So you can expect some heated debates about this at the conference, Mr Corbin says.
He bemoans the fact that unless highway authorities have access to all the necessary tools 'our decisions will naturally be imperfect’. However his answer to this long running grievance is to look ahead and widen the conversation, to think smarter not get angrier.
'We have to start looking at this in a muti-sector way. It's not just about traffic. It's about emergency services as well for instance. This is about delays across the network. This is about the management of an increasing amount of journeys.
'The thinking has been narrow and just around traffic. It feels like the time has come to make the right argument. We have to be smart.'
Mr Corbin suggests the three big technological advances that have changed the day-to-day of traffic management are cloud computing, which enables mobile working; mobility apps, which provide real-time information; and the Internet of Things and sensors, which allow a connected network to provide much more kerbside data.
The real-time information sources have already transformed the sector in the big cities. Just as with Transport for London, Transport for the West Midlands has a close working relationship with Waze.
TfWM is signed up to a partnership arrangement providing an exchange of information with the mobility app that gives the transport authority real-time data from the network. Just as in London, this has now become a crucial to its network management and in return TfWM provides authoritative information, and of course kudos, to this increasingly important app.
'No money has changed hands yet,' Mr Corbin laughs, with just a hint that some way down the line the issue of payment could come up.
Of all the highways elements, traffic management seems the most open to Artificial Intelligence (AI). After all, couldn't all this real-time information simply be fed into a computer learning system that manages itself?
Mr Corbin accepts the premise but cautions against concern.
Cars queue at traffic lights in Preston, Lancashire, June 2019
'Our immediate instinct is to look at these new things as a threat but we move forward. We have to go back and think how transitions have gone in the past. It feels like a great threat but I think from an industry point of view AI will provide us with a better understanding of what is happening kerbside.
'We hear about vehicles moving down the street picking up information on what is happening and how machine learning for a route corridor can help design our approach. It's a potential game changer and it feels like there are opportunities coming off it. Looking at historical data through platforms such as Waze, we have a developed our understanding.
'Data gathered from the kerbside can be incredibly useful, connected vehicles can help provide a much greater perception of actual traffic movement but as for AI we are a step away from that, and even then, policy writing, legislation enactment, and human interaction suggests roles for humans in traffic management should be around for awhile longer.'
This is something TfWM is thinking about and talking about a lot though, Mr Corbin says, as it is home to a connected and autonomous vehicle testbed.
New skills of app development, and data and spatial analysis should become more essential to the business as it moves forward, he suggests, and highlights that TfWM is establishing a skills academy to help broaden and strengthen its knowledge base.
Focus and thinking
ADEPT's conference has the theme of 'Re-focusing the Role and Re-examining the Duty'.
Given the fact that the Government has started a consultation on major road works reforms before it launches the new £10m Street Manager digital platform to plan and manage works, the conference seems particularly timely.
The reforms, which only apply to England, will help establish a unified, digitised system for booking and administering local road works and street works under nationwide take-up of the permit scheme system.
The move to a more uniform, transparent system of managing road works is very welcome Mr Corbin says, while pointing out this is not the core focus of the current traffic management culture. Influencing behaviour to dampen demand is at the heart of the profession now.
A big influence was the emphasis on behavioral change, learned during London 2012. Indeed, the TfWM mantra is retime, reroute, remode or remove.
Mr Corbin highlights that so many of our cities are, literally, choking at full capacity. So it is no surprise that the momentum is building behind giving traffic management increasing prominence and power to make sure the air is safe to breathe if nothing else.
New modes of thinking will be required to move our network forward and get us out of the jam we often find in major urban areas. As Mr Corbin says 'it felt like the right time to have a national conversation'.
'From an ADEPT perspective we want to be more in the conversation with government. We need to be in the space and informing what is happening. The conference is free to attend and it's where the community is gathering to talk and learn and possibly promote change.'
At some point in the near future, a hundred or a thousand or even a million journeys might arrive on time instead of late, and a street that used to have illegal air quality will be safer to walk down, unbeknown to those who benefit it might well be because of a conversation that happened in Welford Road Stadium at the ADEPT traffic management conference. That is the power of networks.
You can register to attend the ADEPT National Traffic Managers' Conference HERE.