Technology and devolution: the mutual enablers

Sarah Toy, Sustrans Senior Project ManagerViewpoint

Sarah Toy, author of the ICE’s State of the Nation: Devolution report, and Strategic Resilience Officer for Bristol Futures, Bristol City Council, explains some of the benefits of digital infrastructure

The benefits of investing in infrastructure are well established and it is right that infrastructure is the driving force behind Government’s plans to bridge the north south economic divide. But how do we ensure the new local infrastructure planned – and the existing networks – deliver the best outcomes and succeed in realising the benefits devolution offers?

One of the recommendations in ICE’s recent State of the Nation: Devolution report is for devolution settlements to include funding for digital infrastructure research and development. We know smart use of technology can enable local services to be much more efficient. The integration of otherwise separate parts of local and regional government – brought about by devolution – also provides the optimum set up for the benefits of digital infrastructure to be realised. In short, digital infrastructure and devolution are “mutual enablers”.

There are a number of ways this can and will be put into practice.

Smart tickets for example. For passengers, they offer convenience and flexibility. One pre-paid contactless ticket enables seamless connections across different transport modes, and across services operated by different providers. For operators, contactless ticketing facilitates a raft of analytical activity, which can also benefit passengers. Transport for London, through its Oyster card system maps travel patterns and ensures service changes are communicated directly to those affected. More strategically, the data held by contactless ticketing systems can help in forecasting demand, and provide the basis for sophisticated assessments around our future infrastructure needs.

Adoption of smart ticketing is slowly increasing around the country, and as devolution progresses, technology like this which will enable wider hubs to look, feel and operate as single economic zones, will become more of a necessity.

Smart use of technology could also modernise our waste collections. NetBin, an intelligent bin sensing system being rolled out in Milton Keynes, monitors waste and recycling containers, so only full bins are emptied.

Netbins, in Milton Keynes, monitor how full they are, so they are only emptied when full
Netbins, in Milton Keynes, monitor how full they are, so they are only emptied when full

This will reduce heavy lorry road traffic, pollution and congestion. The environmental problems of overflowing bins will also be improved. The potential for pooling resources and data, which devolution will encourage through the creation of Combined Authorities, means schemes like this will be able to deliver even greater efficiencies.

Finally, devolution will result in new hubs, often centering on multi-cities. These hubs must be sustainable and the new authorities being created will have powers to establish new tailored approaches to deliver this. An example is the Bristol Smart Energy City Collaboration, which has smart use of energy data at its heart.

By the early 2020s most homes are expected to be using smart meters, resulting in greater availability of sophisticated data on the city’s energy usage. The Collaboration will work to ensure the city can access and interpret local energy supply and demand data, enabling co-ordinated city and neighbourhood-scale interventions – such as balancing heat and power demand and supply across the city in real time.

You can read more about devolution in a digital world in our State of the Nation: Devolution report: www.ice.org.uk/media-and-policy/state-of-the-nation