ICE's latest insight paper examines the challenges, solutions and benefits of digitally retrofitting existing infrastructure assets and networks.
Over the past decade, the built environment sector has seen the application of digital technologies grow at a steady rate.
While new assets integrate many of these technologies by default, questions have been raised surrounding the ability to retrofit existing infrastructure for the digital age.
Digitally retrofitting existing assets and networks can deliver a host of benefits. It can extend asset lifecycles, deliver efficiencies in operation and maintenance, improve resilience, provide data and evidence to improve decision making, reduce carbon emissions and resource use, as well as increase asset value.
In the UK particularly, much of the infrastructure used today has been around for many years, sometimes for more than a century. With a growing population and increasing demand for high quality infrastructure from both the public and businesses, these existing assets and networks will need to continue to work just as well, if not better.
Across the core infrastructure sectors there are already a number of digital retrofit programmes in progress. Examples include the Digital Railway Programme, the development of smart grid technology, the advent of Digital Twins and network-wide smart cities.
While these plans are ambitious, digital retrofitting need not always be complicated or costly. The installation of sensors to detect changes in a structure can help minimise maintenance costs and ensure issues are addressed early, with real-time data about condition and performance fed back to an asset owner.
The Digital Twin concept – a representation of a physical infrastructure asset in a digital format – is particularly important when it comes to digital retrofit. It enables asset and network owners to understand where infrastructure can benefit from improvements, allowing for value to be unlocked in new ways.
This improved decision making through the availability of consistent, quality data is one of the most potent benefits digitalisation can provide. However, it can only reach its full potential if that data is interoperable and able to be communicated not just within, but between, assets and networks. It has been estimated that greater data sharing could unlock an additional £15 billion per year of benefits across UK infrastructure.
This interoperability is particularly relevant with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic – the virus has demonstrated how interconnected all aspects of modern society are, including infrastructure. Managing infrastructure as a system rather than individual assets helps to mitigate risk and improve resilience.
Digital retrofit has the potential for public backlash if not properly implemented.
The adoption of sensors, automated tracking of passengers or drivers on transport networks and the monitoring of energy and water use will inevitably raise concerns about the extent to which people’s activities are being monitored. It is important to develop public confidence in these systems, using, for example, regulation, privacy laws, anonymisation of data and transparency for what data is used for.