In conversation with Philip Graham

Why does the country need a National Infrastructure Commission?

We have a rich and proud history of delivering world-class infrastructure in this country – but all too often decisions about what we need as a country are bogged down by short-term considerations, rather than preparing for the decades ahead.  How we commute to work, communicate with our friends and colleagues and power our homes and businesses will change dramatically over the coming years as technologies develop and the needs of the environment become ever-more important and if we are to avoid trailing our international competitors, our politicians – the decision-makers for what major projects get the green light –  need dispassionate, unbiased advice on our long-term infrastructure needs.

That’s why a central part of our remit is to deliver a National Infrastructure Assessment, looking across a range of sectors to consider what the country needs between now and 2050.  The first-ever of these will be published later this year, and we’ll be producing an Assessment every five years to ensure our analysis can take account of new and emerging technologies.

We also conduct bespoke analysis to consider emerging challenges – for example, we have previously examined issues including the need for a smart energy system in the UK and the need to improve digital connectivity, and we’ve recently launched a study into the future of the freight industry.

But we are also here to hold the Government to account, and ensure they continue to invest in infrastructure, and implement the recommendations that we put forward.

What are the main infrastructure opportunities and challenges over the next 20-30 years that we as a country face?

The biggest opportunity – and challenge – we face is the emergence of new digital and artificial intelligence technologies.  We have been looking at how we can make the most of these innovations as they develop.

Our Data for the Public Good report, published in December, highlighted how introducing measures such as sensors, smart traffic lights and smart water meters across the infrastructure network could improve the efficiency of our existing assets, collecting the data needed to identify and complete repairs as they are needed, as well as clogs in the network, to help reduce delays and disruption for users.

This technology could also be instrumental in planning for future infrastructure, which is why we want to see the Centre for Digital Built Britain and the Alan Turing Institute work together to create the UK’s first-ever Digital Twin – a digital model of the UK’s network – to help predict how a new piece of infrastructure could work in practice.

But it’s also a key theme that runs through all our work, whether that’s one of our very first reports, which examined the country’s future energy supply; or one of our most recent studies which made the case for using new technology to tackle water leakages.  But it’s also a key factor as we consider the future of transport, and developments such as connected and autonomous vehicles.

But all of these would need to be underpinned by a fast, reliable digital network across the country – one of the many factors that the forthcoming National Infrastructure Assessment will consider.

What have been the main challenges in delivering the first National Infrastructure Assessment?

The National Infrastructure Assessment will be a world-first – no other countries have attempted anything like this, and so there has been no blueprint for us to follow either for the first of these, or how it may evolve in the future.

Starting in this way has meant we’ve been able to look for new and innovative approaches to finding solutions to some of our most intractable problems in infrastructure: for example, rather than conducting research or commissioning analysis on how we may prepare for driverless cars, we’ve held a Roads for the Future competition encouraging some of the brightest and best from across industry and academia to put their minds to this challenge, looking at how technology could help adapt our roads for these vehicles.  I’ve been really pleased with the response we’ve received, with 81 different entries, and five now shortlisted and developing their ideas further over the Summer.

On top of this, we’ve consulted widely with individuals and communities as well as leading organisations across the infrastructure sector, for their views on what needs the country will have in the decades to come.  We’ve also conducted and commissioned high quality research and analysis of the likely challenges we as a country will face over the coming decades, and what the most effective responses are likely to be.  All of this will then help us as we make our recommendations to Government and industry on what we as a country should invest in to secure our infrastructure network, but also to support economic growth and competitiveness, and improve peoples’ quality of life long into the future.

And there’s clear interest across the infrastructure industry in this new and ground-breaking way of working.  Our consultation document, Congestion, Capacity, Carbon, was published in October and attracted over 200 responses on key future challenges including energy and water supplies, digital connectivity, the future for our cities and infrastructure to support housing.

What do you think has been the greatest success of the NIC under your leadership?

One of the things I’m proudest of is our Young Professionals Panel, bringing together architects, engineers and other experts who will be critical in delivering this country’s future infrastructure.  Launched last November, we received over 500 applications to be part of this new initiative, and we’ve now got 16 talented young people now working with us and informing the work that we do.

This is a critically-important part of the Commission’s work, to shape not just what we invest in but also how the infrastructure industry develops.  I am excited to see young people at the start of their careers who previously were not talking to our organisation, really enthused by how they will be working hand in hand with us and getting the chance to have a real influence over what we do – the people who, ultimately, will deliver on our recommendations.

Philip Graham is the Chief Executive of the National Infrastructure Commission,  and will be speaking on UK’s first National Infrastructure Assessment at the Public Sector Show on 26th June, at ExCel London.