Sir John Armitt, chairman of the UK National Infrastructure Commission, addressed attendees at Bentley Systems’ Year in Infrastructure conference in London, Oct. 16, where he described the findings of the commission’s first long-term national infrastructure assessment report, discussed the “human issue” of collaboration, and offered ways to control capital costs on projects.

Armitt, a civil engineer, previously was chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority for six years and has held leadership positions with the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Network Rail, Union Railways, and Laing International. He was an ENR newsmaker in 2015, recognized for delivering the London Olympics on time, on budget and safely.

The NIC report, Data for the Public Good, sets out the premise that “having more information day to day helps people make better decisions”…and that includes making better decisions about infrastructure. Having data and sharing it appropriately will help the country manage its assets “productively,” the report declares.

Following his opening keynote, Armitt and Greg Bentley, CEO of Bentley Systems, sat down for a conversation onstage:

Bentley: How can public policy promote information sharing?

Armitt: This was one that fell into the box of “too difficult for the moment.” For example, if you go to meetings with different water companies, they will talk about sharing information between their networks … but getting them to actually do it is another issue.

At the top level of organizations you get, “Yes, we’re all going collaborate together.” I’ve seen it between major government departments. The difficulty is whether the engine room has been told about this change in direction by the captain, or whether they carry on at the same speed in the same direction as before.

I think the whole concept of the digital twin is inevitable. [The report,] Data for the Public Good, sparked a lot of debate, and the politicians follow public opinion and professional opinion. So the more we keep banging on about it, the more will get done.

Bentley: Let me ask about private investment. I hadn’t realized that a premise of the UK infrastructure plan is that public funding will be matched by private funds. How can technology cost-benefit analysis increase the share available?

Armitt: We hear that there is a wall of money out there, and investors are just looking for “good” projects. By that, they mean projects that make a “good return.” How do they assure a good return?

Aside from the revenue stream being very good (and very often what they want to see is a government guarantee) you can get the capital costs down [by increasing productivity, industrialization or using new materials].… We need to address these challenges to get a better return if we’re going to have the opportunity for private-sector capital to get a better return. Everyone in this room pays for infrastructure. Government doesn’t have money; it only has our money! We have to make sure it is used in the most cost-effective way.

Bentley: To end on a high note, we certainly think that going digital is everyone’s idea in every industry. The autonomous-vehicle gold rush of brain power has been stimulating. We now see that some parts of it are hard — but we thought it was “eventually” and now we know it is imminent. Let’s all stand up straight and say that going digital is going to create terrific benefits for us.

Putting together sharing information and private investment [could mean] opportunities for provide infrastructure as a service—drainage as a service, for instance. Let’s do it before Google does. All kinds of opportunities are there when we put immersive visualization and analytics visibility into what we’re doing.

Our responsibility at Bentley Systems is to make the engineering information no longer dark, but available to be digital components and digital context for workflows for digital twins that we will be talking about from now on.

Armitt: Also ending on a positive note, I started out life as a contractor, so I’m an optimist—you have to be. Anything we can imagine, we can build. The challenge is, how quickly and cost effectively can we build it? That’s the nature of human inspiration. It will take a little time to get there, but eventually we will do it.

The great thing about what’s happening at Bentley Systems and the companies you are working with is that you are helping us fulfill that imagination.