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Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction

Transforming infrastructure through smarter information

January 2024

As Dr Jennifer Schooling steps down as Director of the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) to take on a new role as Professor of Digital Innovation and Connected Places at Anglia Ruskin University, she reflects on the incredible journey that CSIC has taken over the past decade. She examines the centre's remarkable accomplishments as well as the significant impact it has had on the smart infrastructure and construction industry.

When I started at CSIC, we were still very much in the research and experimentation stage of deploying digital sensing tools, developing what later became known as digital twins, and understanding how to use these tools and techniques to monitor, manage, design and construct our built assets. Although the CSIC vision, as set out by Prof Kenichi Soga and Prof Robert Mair in 2011, was always predicated on a systems view of our built environment, including a city-scale perspective from the start, as a sector we were still very focused on individual assets, and thinking about infrastructure systems separately. This comes from a historical approach, which still persists, of regulating and managing our infrastructure systems and built environment through separate bodies and from different departments of government.

We have now moved from a place where the journey was only being mapped by a few pioneers to one where the majority are aware of opportunities and challenges, and progress in the sector is gathering pace.
Dr Jennifer Schooling OBE, CSIC Director at the Dep. of Engineering, University of Cambridge

In those early days of CSIC, we worked hard to bring the industry together, holding workshops to enable technology companies, consultants, contractors and clients to discuss what we might want and need from new sensing systems, how we might demonstrate them and prove their worth and utility, and what to do with the data once we reliably generate and collect them. This early and ongoing involvement of all sectors of the industry has been invaluable to CSIC over the years, helping to shape our activities and ensure that our research outputs were relevant to industry. Our funding as an Innovation and Knowledge Centre (IKC) enabled us to engage beyond the normal realms of academic research, to work closely with our industry colleagues to shape the outcomes further and deliver them into practice. This has been a learning process for everyone and has highlighted the challenges of bridging the (often large) gap between what research funding is designed to deliver and what industry can realistically be expected to adopt, particularly in a sector which has limited spare funding available to invest in innovation. The commitment from our partners in granting us access to live construction and infrastructure sites, collaborating on case studies, and giving input to tools, techniques and guidance documents has been transformational.

Gradually, together with our industry partners, we made progress. We brought structural and geotechnical engineers together with the asset management community to understand each other’s perspectives and challenges, and build a value case for data and ‘smartness’. We brought sustainability professionals, often toiling alone within their organisations in the early to mid-2010s, together with asset managers to understand how futureproofing concepts need to inform asset management. This collaboration evolved into our current work on how the impacts of climate change and other challenges should inform asset management plans.

Among the early challenges we found ourselves addressing was the need to take a ‘whole life’ view of built environment assets, which have lifetimes of the order of many decades or even centuries. With much of our transport and water infrastructure having been shaped by the Victorians, and many of the assets they built still in use, we had to develop approaches for deploying sensors to provide the information and data that had been lost to time regarding the history of the assets, their current capacity and performance, and the loading to which they are currently subjected. Flagship CSIC projects like the monitoring of the 400-year-old St Mary Abchurch during tunnelling, facilitated by TfL, and the monitoring of several 150-year-old masonry bridges with Network Rail, have provided data directly to the construction projects or asset management teams, as well as creating a foundation for deep research insights into the behaviour of such structures. We have also used monitoring to ensure the condition of deep foundations, both during their construction and for existing piles subject to disturbance by adjacent construction. We have gained insights on everything from brand-new tunnels to ageing Victorian ones (at Liverpool Street, one on top of the other!) to the structural shrinkage of tall buildings during construction. Alongside shorter-term decision-making for day-to-day operations, this is also starting to inform approaches to maintaining and retaining ageing assets in a world where we don’t have the resources (human or material) to simply replace and therefore we have to understand them and extend their life.

Considering individual assets is nevertheless only part of the picture of delivering value from infrastructure. The need to understand our infrastructure systems, and how each component contributes to performance, has been a key plank of CSIC’s work, led by the asset management team at the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM). This has helped develop insights and tools to enable industry to systematically consider asset criticality in addition to asset condition, to optimise system and network performance based on a range of criteria, and stakeholder needs. This includes whole-life value-based approaches that enable asset owners and managers to prioritise investment and maintenance activities, and to consider the emerging challenges that climate change is presenting for continued and long-term delivery of services. It has been enabled by structured approaches to futureproofing, and to understanding data needs, including the Line of Sight project.

All of this highlighted the challenges of managing data across the life of an asset that may persist for more than 200 years, and a system that effectively has an indefinite life. Data curation is absolutely critical to this, as is the need to regard data as an asset in its own right, which also needs to be maintained across the lifecycle of the physical asset. These insights enabled us to develop various position papers, starting with Smart Infrastructure, which endeavoured to bring clarity to the industry regarding the huge potential that a data-centric approach can offer to our sector. We also sought to understand how infrastructure and city planning and management come together, including how we need to think of the ground beneath our feet as a resource that offers not just space for infrastructure but also the opportunity to develop sustainable heating and cooling systems. This led to our work with the Ove Arup Foundation on ‘Digital Cities for Change’, which has gone beyond the purely technical to consider the governance, management and ethical dimensions that need to be ‘wrapped around’ our digital solutions to ensure that they deliver value to the people and places they are intended to serve.

I have been lucky to be the Director of CSIC during a decade of real transformation for our sector. In many ways, we are still at the beginning of our journey to truly capitalise on the transformative potential that ‘smart’ or data-centric solutions bring to infrastructure, construction and city management.  We have now moved from a place where the journey was only being mapped by a few pioneers to one where the majority are aware of opportunities and challenges, and progress in the sector is gathering pace. CSIC’s community of academics and industry partners still has a strong role to play by exploring the cutting edge of industry’s challenges and helping to develop the solutions that will help us to deliver resource-efficient, low-carbon, and equitable solutions to the challenges we face as society and as a sector. Long may it continue to do so!

With thanks to the many current and past colleagues in CSIC whose exemplary research and commitment to helping transform the industry made all of the above possible.