What if digital transformation was the key to unlocking net zero outcomes?

Improved use of data, technology and connectivity across transport provides an opportunity to improve safety, customer experience and delivery efficiency. Is it also the key to achieving a net zero transport system? 

Society is embracing digital transformation across all aspects of life; be this the way we shop or the way we travel. Digital transformation focuses on better use of data, technology and connectivity to achieve improved outcomes. In a transport environment, these outcomes have traditionally related to improving safety, customer experience and efficiency in delivery, however there is growing recognition of the wider benefits that ‘digital’ can provide. With a global focus upon climate change, we look at whether ‘digital’ could be the key to the decarbonisation of transport.

The digital transformation of transport has been underway for years, the recognition of the change is however gaining more strategic focus with major infrastructure clients considering how best to adopt ‘digital’ to improve the way networks are designed, built, operated and used. Opportunities across transport networks can be grouped into three distinct themes; design and construction of infrastructure, operation of transport networks and enhancing the customer experience.

What is net zero and why is it important?

Net zero is the common goal of governments and society to combat climate change by 2050. It’s about striking a balance between the carbon emissions going into the atmosphere and those being taken out; recognising the ultimate objective to eliminate emissions altogether. Mitigating climate change is essential to slowing down the global increase in temperature and the associated impacts of sea level rise and increase in extreme weather events. By striving for net zero we can limit the damage of global environmental catastrophes.

There is no greater agenda than mitigating climate change. Whether by cutting carbon, protecting nature or advocating for a fair transition, achieving a net zero future will allow us to build back better.
Mark Naysmith UK CEO, WSP

According to the UK Department for Transport’s recent publication, ‘Decarbonising Transport: setting the challenge’ (2020), transport became the largest emitting sector of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in 2016, with the equivalent of 451 million tonnes of CO2, equalling 28% of all UK emissions.  This firmly puts transport in the spotlight in the decarbonisation agenda.

Whilst this article speaks to transport as an industry, we must recognise that over 85% of domestic transport emissions come from roads (DfT (2018), Transport Statistics Great Britain 2018 (online)), the examples are therefore focused on this mode. 

How can the digital transformation of transport help achieve net zero outcomes?

Achieving net zero outcomes requires a fundamental shift across all aspects of society; ultimately it requires us to change. This is a common characteristic when we embrace digital technologies to improve key transport related outcomes of safety, customer experience and delivery efficiency. Drawing together net zero and ‘digital’ forms a unique opportunity to leverage digital transformation with a focus towards delivering net zero outcomes.

Design and construction of infrastructure

Improved integration of data into the design of transport infrastructure projects, through digital twin capabilities, aids a better understanding of the needs of the network. By understanding constraints better, we can improve the targeting of interventions and new assets to deliver a more refined design. If we consider the design of emergency areas as an example, there is the requirement for various data sets to inform the network operational performance, i.e. breakdown locations, traffic flows, gradients etc. These data streams are brought together through a digital twin, offering the ability to generate intelligence to support design. Digital design tools then enable the balancing of varying parameters (i.e. operational performance, geometry, carbon impact) in the design of future emergency area locations enabling an operational focused outcome, that also works towards delivering other key client objectives i.e. net zero.

Digitally enabled design using standardised and modular components offers the opportunity to shift part of the traditional construction phase offsite. The manufacturing of assets to a consistent predefined standard approach, in bulk, enables a more efficient construction process and the ability to define a solution that provides the minimum materials, and therefore embedded carbon, to meet the desired outcome. By making use of digital rehearsals, remotely, and connected and autonomous plant, infrastructure projects optimise use of modular components to speed up the deployment of assets and minimise site specific work, thereby shrinking the project’s carbon emissions. 

Operating transport networks

Transport networks rely on operators to assist in smoothing network performance (i.e. traffic flows), dealing with incidents and carrying out maintenance. By adopting a digital approach, network operators can play a significant role in decarbonising transportation.

Digital transformation allows for increased value through better use of data, to create information and ultimately intelligence. In the context of network operation and asset management, this creates an opportunity to increase predictive maintenance and targeted network interventions. For example, a sensor-equipped drainage network allows intelligence-led planning of maintenance activities. This enables operators to minimise the disruptive impacts of roadworks leading to improved network performance and reduced GHG emissions. 

Improving operational capability through automation is an opportunity that network operators are embracing. Using data and technology to gain a better understand of what is happening across a network provides a foundation, building on this with automation and machine learning enables more predictive actions to be undertaken and enhanced capabilities for proactive network management. This provides significant opportunities to optimise traffic flows and contribute to the decarbonisation agenda through reducing GHG emissions. 

Enhancing the customer experience

The most significant contribution to GHG emissions from transport is through use of the network. Reducing demand, modal shift and electrifying fleets are considered the most significant opportunities to decarbonise transport networks, and digital transformation is key to enabling each. The accelerated transformation in the way we work, brought about by COVID-19 is a prime example of how flexible working can reduce the demand for transport. Whilst it is too early to tell whether this trend will continue, the evidence to date does show this reduction in demand has led to significant reductions in GHG emissions. Longer term changes across transport will not be so easy and as the globe starts to move into a new normal, we will have to look at more gradual ways to decarbonise our transport networks.

If we look at modal shift, through improved information provision to customers surrounding the operation of transport networks we can support proactive modal choices before journeys begin. For example, through improved use of data and information streams customers can have access to real-time congestion data enabling proactive decisions to switch modes for an improved journey experience. With targeted digital transformation in active travel (i.e. to walking, cycling or rail), individuals will find it easier to shift to low carbon transport modes leading to meaningful reductions in GHG emissions.

In the longer term the widespread use of connected, and ultimately autonomous, vehicles will provide further opportunities to improve network performance and offer greater intelligence for journey planning, ride sharing and optimal vehicle performance. Each has a significant part to play in enhancing the customer experience and the integrated approach required to decarbonise our transport networks. Further to this, in an autonomous world, we would expect to see significant reductions in network assets, an example is the concept of ‘Naked Highways’ where no roadside assets are required, reducing the embedded carbon and construction/maintenance GHG related emissions.

What next?

Elevating net zero in the digital transformation agenda allows for a decarbonisation related step change quicker than would traditionally have been achieved. The digital opportunities we embrace now, contributing to climate change mitigation, are key not only in terms of a shift to truly sustainable networks, but also in how we ensure both infrastructure and services deliver all desired outcomes. To further explore these opportunities, we are working with transport network operators to map their digital transformation and net zero strategies, identifying synergies and opportunities to align and realise benefits across both.

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