Published on in TransportDigital Transformation

Forgive the pun, but transport has historically been the engine of profound change. The very symbol of the industrial revolution is the steam train – an innovation that laid the foundations for the modern world. The sector is unlike most others in the way it enables other businesses and industries to succeed.

But while transport was a driver for the first two industrial revolutions, in the form of the steam train and the motor car, it is perceived to be lagging as we enter the fourth. Speaking to 2,145 British consumers for our Technology in a Transforming Britain report, only half said that they believe technology is significantly impacting the transport industry.

Yet change is what consumers are seeking, with more than a quarter (28 per cent) pinpointing transport as the sector they would most like to see transform.

Achieving transformation in such a foundational a sector would yield benefits spreading far and wide across our economy and society.  Yet in order to do so, such changes would need to be enduring and sustainable in a dynamic digital landscape.

Dealing with dynamism

Consider Tesla, a company that is arguably at the forefront of this revolution. It is cutting an innovative path through the sector, inspiring other manufacturers to embrace electric vehicles and capturing the imagination of the general public by launching sports cars into space. These kind of transformations are clearly seen as a threat to existing models; almost half (42 per cent) of transport leaders say that their organisation won’t exist in its current form in a decade.

Digital transformation has clearly raised the stakes. The future of transport has always been hard to predict, but now it’s very difficult to say if a given piece of infrastructure will still be useful or viable in the future.

Large public sector infrastructure projects require a significant level of capital investment. For these the business model usually depends on spreading this initial – and often significant – monetary investment across a very long time span and balancing those with the economic benefits. But this approach becomes more problematic in this dynamic environment.

Anticipating, not awaiting

With impactful innovations on the horizon, the rapid pace of change may make it tempting to wait for what’s coming next before making any significant moves. However, if we are to make the most of these advances and address shifting consumer demand, we should begin to anticipate them by creating an adaptable and digitalised infrastructure that can work with new technology.

Rail provides an intriguing example. It is comprised of very expensive infrastructure, and therefore getting the most out of the existing system is key. Digital Railway is pursuing this opportunity by seeking to make this infrastructure ‘smart’ and therefore improving performance.

By integrating digital technology into trains and railways and developing centralised command and control systems to oversee everything, it is able to avoid conflicting journeys on transport networks, predict maintenance needs, and delivery valuable real-time data to staff and customers. This approach has already yielded a 30% overall capacity increase on London’s Victoria Line – without laying down a single extra kilometre of track.

Putting these digitalised systems in place now means that rail operators will be able to tap into future innovations such as machine learning with relative ease, as the data collection and processing system will already be in place to support it.

An open future

Transport is very much the shared domain of the public and private sector, and this gives it an unparalleled opportunity to nurture collaboration. Whether tapping into the tech savviness of the private sector or the resources of the public sector, there’s lots of potential for creativity.

It’s vital, however, that any technology is sufficiently open and agile to accommodate new solutions in the future. The pace of change means that deployments shouldn’t close off potential future innovations – instead, they should seek to anticipate them.

A third of transport leaders currently believe that the sector is most responsible for driving the UK forward and innovating to improve life in the country. If it is to fulfill this ambition, we need to collaborate better to make the most of our strengths and resources.

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