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How can data science inform infrastructure policy?

7 December 2021

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How can data science inform infrastructure policy?

Reported by Ryan Francis, CSaP Policy Intern

As part of the CSaP Policy Fellow seminar series on government’s use of data, science and evidence, Mark Enzer, Chief Technical Officer for Mott MacDonald and Director of the Centre for Digital Built Britain, led a discussion on how data science can be used to inform infrastructure policy.

According to Enzer, the built environment has an overarching purpose: to enable people and nature to flourish together for generations. As human populations increase, so does the size of the built environment. However, growing towns and cities have rapidly encroached into nature. During this seminar, Enzer proposed a systems-based approach to managing the built environment in order to strive for the best outcomes for people, society and nature.

“The built environment now weighs more than all living things….so we have got to start treating it seriously.”

Enzer began by differentiating between the built and natural environments. The built environment consists of the human-made structures like buildings and ‘economic infrastructure’ (energy, transport, water, telecoms etc) which allow people to live. The natural environment is everything we have not built – all the living and non-living things that occur naturally, including the interaction of all living species, climate, weather and natural resources that affect human survival and economic activity. Instead of treating the built and natural environments as completely separate entities, Enzer maintained that these are complex interconnected systems, and that our survival depends on them both.

“We are encroaching on the planet. The built environment is big enough to have a global impact: we cannot just keep building… we need to recognise what we have already built.”

Enzer used the example of climate change to illustrate his point – climate change is not a challenge solely for individual sectors, but for the whole ‘system of systems’ of the built and natural environments. Thus, he argued, a systems-wide challenge demands a systems-based solution: “it can’t be solved in silos”.
Having a clear, coherent, compelling systems-based vision is an important first step, but it requires practical policy, strategy and action to achieve it.

“Digital Twins are part of the answer.”

Enzer argued that tools are becoming available that will help policy-makers, strategy-developers and action-takers. In particular, federated digital twins have the potential to help us to understand complex systems better and to intervene more effectively. Digital twins are realistic digital representations of real-world assets, processes or systems, with dynamic data connections to make the link between the real and virtual worlds. They help us to make better decisions faster, based on insights derived from the real-world data, and those decisions can drive interventions back in the real world. According to Enzer, when we get that right, we can create better outcomes for people, society and nature, which is the whole purpose of the built environment.

During the discussion, a participant highlighted a potential problem with digital twins. They questioned whether poorly collected data would translate into poor insight, poor policy, and eventually poor outcomes. Enzer agreed and explained that the quality of the data and analytical tools are key to the success of digital twins. He further argued that the use of digital twins must be ethically guided - he maintained that built environment data must be always used ‘for public good’.

Image Credit: Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash

Ryan Francis

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge