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Digital Roads of the Future


Roads are fundamental for supporting the economy and society. They have also historically been the source of negative environmental impact. Roads are both a source of and a solution to congestion. While roads enable development they are also linked to undesirable phenomena within and between cities – such as inequality and segregation.

We aim to enable a more sustainable future of transport through the Future Roads programme. The key considerations underpinning our thinking are:

  • Advances in technology can help us improve how we build roads and our ability to maintain them. It is also changing how the road space can/could be used – both in terms of the ability to control traffic and the demand to use the road (e.g. working from home)
  • Climate change is a major challenge for a networked infrastructure system that spans across the country and is exposed to the elements
  • Addressing climate change requires us to be able to measure and manage emissions. We need to agree on how to measure, what boundaries we draw around the problem, what assumptions are made and what data is used to inform this. Net zero plans are being established, but there is much more to do to improve data availability and decision-making processes
  • We not only need to think about the impacts of construction, management and maintenance, but consider the wider societal context of the provision of infrastructure services and how they serve society. 

The key sustainability “challenges” are outlined below. 

Creating a data model to optimise carbon across the lifecycle of a highway asset

New net zero strategies are shaping planning and operation decisions made by infrastructure asset owners (and their supply chain) toward supporting a lower carbon future. While these plans already specify staged targets, developing transparent and consistently applied protocols for collecting and analysing data to measure progress do not always exist. In addition, there are limitations in how the data is collected across projects and how information can be communicated to wider stakeholders in the supply chain. The ambition behind this challenge is to support the creation of a highway-specific data model that solves the business challenges associated with information interoperability throughout the design-to-retire cycle of a motorway/highway and across the value chain (planning, design, construction, operation and maintenance). The underlying aim is to:
- Enable an efficient, reliable, and secure data collection process along with the ability to ensure user friendly access to the data
- nFacilitate an ability to share sustainability and operational data across stakeholders
- Ensure compliance with regulatory requirements

This would be achieved through developing a model that enables the highway sector’s stakeholders to:
- Assess the environmental impact for scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions
- Generate regulatory reports
- Support what-if scenario planning
- Design maintenance strategies and enable proactive asset interventions
- Enable operational reviews

We encourage applicants to outline how they would respond to this aim. It will be beneficial to demonstrate awareness of current and potential future regulatory requirements for sustainability reporting in the UK, EU and the US. It is not expected that applicants present a defined solution up-front. Rather, proposals should demonstrate an understanding of relevant concepts and a plan for how a data model might be developed over the course of a fellowship. SAP, a leader in business software and solutions, will provide its expertise in software development to support a Fellow pursuing this challenge.

A related consideration lies in what services a road provides. A Future Roads project might be oriented on the analysis of and development of new technologies and services that could fundamentally change the allocation of road space and wider augmentation of the physical asset to provide other services.

Industry Sponsor: SAP

How can the sector best manage organisational change to achieve current and future carbon reduction targets effectively and quickly?

EThe highways sector remains relatively traditional in its infrastructure delivery mechanisms covering planning, design, procurement, and construction. It is not generally considered a leader in technological and organisational innovation. Considering major changes in society that are influencing demands on and expectations of the road network (e.g. population growth, alternative technologies, equity, resource efficiency, climate change), the Future Roads partnership would like to see a shift in the sector’s capacity to adapt to new demands.

Emerging solutions to these demands would help the sector evolve to respond to change. This is being led via pockets of expertise across the highway sector supply chain. However, there are many barriers to effective adoption. For example, there is a widely held perception that standards are too slow in updating to allow the incorporation of new knowledge and technology. In addition, change is often seen to be in tension with the maintenance of safety. The Future Roads partners will support a Future Roads Fellow in exploring this sector ecosystem challenge. Through the partnership network, a fellow responding to this challenge will have a unique opportunity to access to stakeholders from across the UK Highways sector to conduct applied research. The ambition is that the fellow will report back to research participants and work directly with partners to develop implementable recommendations and advocate for change. Two key expected outcomes: 1. High-quality, publishable research outputs; and 2. Facilitation of change through engagement with the sector. We welcome proposals that primarily focus on climate change-related issues, but applicants are welcome to include other considerations. We are keen to see at least one of the following concepts featuring in responses to this challenge:
- Technological forecasting and social change
- Business strategy
- Transition to a sustainable economy
- Innovation ecosystems
- Organisational behaviour

Industry Sponsor: Keltbray

How to increase national network road capacity without further construction of new roads?

At the top of the carbon reduction hierarchy is ‘build nothing’, closely followed by ‘build less’. At the strategic planning level, an alternative to constructing new lane capacity is to use the existing asset more productively. For example, increasing the capacity of the existing asset to support more vehicle trips could allow the benefits of a connected country to be achieved in a more construction, and thereby carbon, efficient way. Reduced construction would also support other environmental ambitions. Value for money assessments for new lane capacity schemes currently assumes the same flow density and peaks for trips for the 60-year appraisal period. Confidence that alternative operating models or new technologies could allow increased flow density could change the value for money case for new lane capacity and allow a business case to be made for investments to increase capacity that are not traditional civil engineering. Interventions could target behavioural change, relatively low technology changes to operational procedures or road layouts, or capitalise on digital technologies and connected and autonomous vehicles. We are keen to see proposals for increasing the productivity of the existing network asset.

Industry Sponsor: Ramboll

Contact for Sustainability Theme

Potential applicants should contact the sustainability theme lead, Dr Kristen MacAskill (, for any queries regarding these sustainability challenges.