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Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction

Transforming infrastructure through smarter information

March 2023

In this month's Smart Infrastructure Blog, Jim Johnson, director at Arup, reflects on the evolution of the meaning of infrastructure in the context of the “increasingly complex and interdependent systems” enabled by (smart) technology. He suggests that reaching the best solutions for smart infrastructure hinges on bringing also people and human behaviour into the equation.

In 1999, only about a decade after Tim Berners-Lee conceived of the World Wide Web, and just a couple of years before his untimely death, author Douglas Adams wrote a piece for the Sunday Times entitled ‘How to Stop Worrying and Learn to love the Internet’. Adams concluded with a powerful assertion: “Interactivity.  Many-to-many communications. Pervasive networking. These are cumbersome new terms for elements in our lives so fundamental that, before we lost them, we didn’t even know to have names for them”.  He was commenting on the fact that as a species we are naturally social and interactive.  He positioned the internet and www as the technology that would allow wide large-scale interactivity in a way that previous generations could not have believed possible – but would be underpinned by essential characteristics of human behaviour and would be completely natural to future generations. 

People and human behaviour – with all their inherent complexities – may prove to be the constraint on deploying smart infrastructure, not the technology. Without consideration of the way people interact with, learn from and generate data, our solutions will be at best ineffective and at worst could fail completely. Jim Johnson, Director, Arup

What does this have to do with smart infrastructure? It is a truism that ‘language matters’.  The word infrastructure itself is a relatively modern word, created by the French in the 1870s to describe the structures used to support military activity. This eventually evolved into a broader meaning related to wider civil and civic engineering and then evolved still further, now being commonly used to describe the structures and systems that support the operation of society. By systems, we usually infer people, processes, data, technology and software. Confusingly, the single word ‘infrastructure’ can be used to mean individual components of a system, a system itself, or the complex system of systems that support civilisation itself.  Such ‘smart’ systems – enabled by technology –are dynamic manifestations of Adams’ ‘many-to-many communications’ and ‘pervasive networking’.

The future of human civilisation relies on such smart infrastructure: increasingly complex and interdependent systems, enabled by technology and data loops that previous generations would find difficult to comprehend and that future generations will take for granted.  It is incumbent upon us now, however, to design those systems in the face of the immense challenges needed to decarbonise our civilisation, restore nature and provide resilience to climate change.  Time is short, and we need to bring the full diversity of human ingenuity and intellect to bear.  In doing this we must pursue two radically different approaches that connect to those essential characteristics of human behaviour recognised with such forethought by Adams. 

Firstly, our systems must be designed for end-users.  This might not sound so radical considering that, after all, the discipline of User Experience Design (UX) is well-established best practice in technology; architects practice this as a matter of course in the built environment.  The challenge now is to bring these two communities together, to develop a common language and set of principles to support UX for smart infrastructure that embraces both.  It seems inevitable that a new, broader and more holistic definition of ‘Total User Experience’ is required for this purpose.  As Blaine Brownell said in the Architect Magazine (Bridging UX and the Built Environment) “If the future of UX is environments, then the reverse phenomenon is also occurring, as architecture is increasingly functioning as an immersive computational interface”.

What Douglas Adams perhaps did not envisage is that the impact of the technology he was seeing in action in the 1990s would completely change cultural and behavioural norms.  Modern computing will enable decision making in relation to such complex interdependent systems even in the face of such change, by allowing modelling of a wide range of scenarios.  But this will need much deeper collaboration between users and stakeholders as well as data sharing on a scale that would have been incomprehensible even a decade ago.  These data will encompass information that might be commercially, personally or politically sensitive such as information about behaviour, emotions, choice, decision-making, equity and inclusion. 

Consequently, we also need a radical new approach to data and in particular to data sharing for the benefit of all.  Working with sensitive data around human emotion and behaviour will inevitably create ethical dilemmas; the spectrum of what is acceptable behaviour in human societies is highly variable and will challenge the creation of universal practice. Collaboration requires trust which can be hard to build and easy to damage when the common language is still evolving.  Much work is still required to establish social frameworks as well as technological frameworks for data sharing.  Our industry is at the beginning of this journey with programmes such as National Grid ESO’s Virtual Energy System and the work of Icebreaker1 or the Open Data Institute’s work with a consortium of UK Water Companies led by Northumbrian Water on the ‘Stream’ programme to transform customer services through data sharing.

In short, and perhaps counterintuitively, people and human behaviour – with all their inherent complexities – may prove to be the constraint on deploying smart infrastructure, not the technology. Without consideration of the way people interact with, learn from and generate data, our solutions will be at best ineffective and at worst could fail completely.  This is my call to arms: to place professionals who understand people and society at the centre of thinking; with the right consideration, the emergence of genuinely smart infrastructure will allow civilisation to flourish!


Adams, D. “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to love the Internet” Sunday Times 29th August 1999

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