Smart infrastructure

Desiging for the future

In the coming years, billions of euros will need to be invested in the infrastructure for vital services such as the supply of energy and water, telecommunications and transport. A new research programme will provide the knowledge base for smart choices.

Text: Marion de Boo

Freighter (credits: Shutterstock)

On sunny days, consumers of the future will receive a signal to charge the electric car or switch on the washing machine. This will enable them to contribute to a smart management of the energy network. After all, supply and demand from solar energy must always balance, as otherwise a blackout will occur. Energy companies are currently investigating how the smart meter can encourage consumers to actively participate in grid management. The railway network is also becoming smarter. Small deviations in the pattern of vibrations in the railway tracks are picked up at an early stage during track inspections by making use of a new mathematical model. This allows the damage to be quickly and simply repaired with a rail grinder without any disruption for travellers. The Port of Rotterdam is using data about the number of ships that will dock, not only to better estimate the capacity for follow-up transport but also to predict when quays require maintenance.

Three challenges

Infrastructure managers face three major challenges in the coming years: the transition to a sustainable energy system, the data revolution, and the increasing urbanisation. Making the right investment decisions for the long term is difficult. Knowledge can play a role in this. The research programme Responsive Innovations will therefore start this spring, which focuses on infrastructures that can flexibly respond to changing circumstances.

‘There are good reasons for infrastructure managers to work more closely together’, says Aernout van der Bend, director of NGinfra, one of the partners in the programme. ‘The management of infrastructures is quite simply a specialised discipline irrespective of which infrastructure we are talking about. Furthermore, the infrastructures in this small country are becoming increasingly interconnected. When one fails, it affects the others. If there is too much water then the power supply fails. Then the trains cannot run, the road markings malfunction and Schiphol Airport closes. If Prorail wants to construct a new train line then they need to be able to quickly check whether that would require an additional large investment in the electricity network. There is constant interaction with each other.’

About Responsive Innovations

In the research programme Responsive Innovations, the NWO Domain Social Sciences and Humanities is collaborating with knowledge centre NGinfra (Next Generation Infrastructures). Six infrastructure managers are participating in this: Rijkswaterstaat, Port of Rotterdam, Alliander, ProRail, water board Vitens and the Schiphol Group. NWO and NGinfra will jointly develop new methods for the smart management of vital infrastructures. The research has technical, legal, mathematical and economic perspectives. Six proposals were recently awarded funding and each of these projects will appoint two PhD students. A total of 3 million euros is available for the programme, which has a duration of five years.