Complex whole systems for critical national infrastructure

What connects Information, Communications and Technology (ICT), Transport, Heat & Cooling, Healthcare, Built Environment, Industry, Retail, Residential and Commercial activity? asks Duncan Botting.

Complex whole systems for critical national infrastructure

The answer is energy, and to be more specific energy is the underlying river of economic and societal wellbeing.

“The challenge of complex, critical systems is that we have not got the cross cutting skills in sufficient quantity to deal with the challenges we are heading for very rapidly.” 

This profound fact is taken for granted by many participants in the delivery of these different activities, and yet, the removal of this basic “right” is likely to lead to near total breakdown of our society. Nowhere was this better exemplified for me than the Cumbria flooding of 2016.

Electricity was turned off to protect the safety and security of the system and plunged 60,000 inhabitants into the dark ages for three days. An excellent report of the incidence and its repercussions is available from the Royal Academy of Engineering website. What this incidence demonstrated is just how we rely on energy to provide the very fabric of modern life and how telecommunications is such an important tool for living our lives now, from managing our cash to finding out information on demand. 

The withdrawal of this given, delivery of energy to live your life as you wish, was a shock to many and provided government a wakeup call to understand how close we are to civil unrest and chaos once this essential service is removed. Within hours of the electricity going off, mobile phone coverage was lost in the affected area, shops were unable to supply goods because of the inability of their electronic cash machines and stock control mechanisms were unable to operate. Emergency backup plans were unable to be implemented due to conditions. The local A&E become overwhelmed by students from Lancaster university trying to find generation to charge their mobile phones!

The point of recounting this story is to highlight the absolute inter-connectivity of the infrastructure we now have. All the different aspects of life highlighted in the list above are underpinned by the timely, reliable and resilient delivery of energy via our complex network of power infrastructure.

This example exemplifies the need for whole system thinking, it highlights the need for local as well as national resilience. It also highlighted this was a real-life challenge – not hypothetical.  As we move to more distributed generation, local intelligence and communities providing their own support structures, there is a groundswell of grid edge activity that has never been seen before. The question is how do we empower local communities while ensuring the reliability, resilience and integrity of a local and national system?

Think what happens when we move to the Internet of Things and the interconnected 25 to 50 billion devices that are forecasted to appear on the system over the next 30 years?

This complexity starts to become very challenging for policy makers. Traditionally they have reduced the problems to departmental responsibilities, health, transport, energy, etc. So they may find this hypothetical use case that I outline here very challenging:

I’m travelling in my driverless car across the Peak District (a rural location). I have a heart condition and wear a remote monitored and controlled pacemaker. My car is about to encounter a possible crash. I am driving past a primary substation that is to one side of the road and on the other is a railway track with a high-speed train just moving off from a red signal – the 300 occupants are streaming videos and the train asset system is being monitored. The substation has just detected a high voltage fault! Everyone of these connected devices is using the newly rolled out 5G communications network. Who gets priority on the communication network (especially as net neutrality does not allow for prioritisation) – the car crash, the pace-maker, the faulted substation, the train,…..?

This is a scenario that I posed to the European Commission 5G IoT Summit last week in Brussels. I was there wearing my European Utility Telecoms Council Director hat. It was attended by many of the key experts in the field. The room was a little silent!

The hypothetical scenario I describe here is not that far away from becoming reality, in a very short time scale – 2020 and beyond.

The challenge of complex, critical systems is that we have not got the cross cutting skills in sufficient quantity to deal with the challenges we are heading for very rapidly. The old process of reducing the problem until it was one that could be understood by one silo and then another is no longer viable. Whole system design, build, implementation, test and maintenance are different skills to that of our traditional skill and competency profiles.

As the Energy Sector Chair for the Institution of Engineering and Technology I see the need for much great collaboration between sectors and disciplines, especially in the cross fertilisation of skills and competencies. Consider your own organisation…..are you ready for the whole system challenge? 


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