This piece is written by Christiana Clark, Principal Programme Officer in the Mayor of London’s Infrastructure Coordination Service at the Greater London Authority (GLA).
The Geospatial Commission is building a digital map of underground pipes and cables that will revolutionise the way we install, maintain, operate and repair our buried infrastructure - the National Underground Asset Register (NUAR).
The Greater London Authority (GLA) are part of the NUAR delivery team and we are proud this month to help NUAR achieve a major milestone by Greater London becoming the first area to fully onboard all major utilities and local authorities to NUAR.
It has been a privilege to work alongside our enthusiastic, collaborative partners in the NUAR delivery team across the public and private sector. To mark this milestone, we wanted to reflect on learnings based on our involvement over the past four years.
Working as a statutory undertaker in London’s streets is challenging. Not only are we the most densely populated city in the country leading to logistical complexities before ground can even be broken, but the variety and age of our underground assets extend hundreds of years of history.
Site engineers must therefore take extreme care and effort when digging around London’s complex network of utility assets. These factors led the Geospatial Commission to choose London as one of the first pilot regions of NUAR in 2019. Shortly thereafter, the Greater London Authority, through the Mayor of London’s Infrastructure Coordination Service, became a delivery partner to the Geospatial Commission and we have supported the programme ever since.
Our primary mission has been to support the Geospatial Commission with the onboarding of asset owners due to our team’s existing strong relationships with relevant stakeholders across the capital.
Since then we have onboarded over 60 asset owners in the Greater London region, including all 33 local authorities and major utilities who operate within the Greater London boundary. We always knew that our underground utility network was dense, but until NUAR, there was no way of knowing how dense it really was. We now know that these 60 asset owners hold over 16 million asset records within the Greater London boundary.
Change makers exist everywhere
One of our biggest learnings over the past four years is the role of change makers. Change makers help influence their organisations - driving change in the short term - to unlock future long-term benefits.
In our experience, change makers do not share the same title, have the same remit or even work for the same types of organisations – their shared characteristic is that they are the people who can influence and bring change when change seems difficult.
This has been especially apparent with our local authority asset owners. While geospatial skills have reduced in local authorities, those GIS professionals who have remained have been critical change makers for NUAR.
These individuals were able to recognise the transformative benefits that NUAR could unlock in their councils, even though its benefits may not directly impact their own teams, and drive progress. It is largely because of these change makers that the programme has been able to extend so widely in a short space of time.
Be the change you want to see in your industry
Another key learning we made was how open organisations could be when faced with a change they believed in. For example, the London-based telco provider Community Fibre was an early adopter of NUAR when no major telco provider in London had formally joined the programme.
We have also experienced brilliant examples of collaboration between asset owners who could be perceived as competitors in the same industry. BUUK Infrastructure, an industry leader when it comes to their asset data management, supported a player who was just at the beginning of their digitalisation journey by sharing learnings and recommendations with them.
This is one of the many examples where NUAR has generated value outside of its immediate core deliverables and driven improved data capture and quality in the sector.
Shaping the NUAR programme together
The final learning we have made is the power of collaboration. The NUAR programme has always maintained the same message that NUAR is a product that has developed directly as a result of the needs communicated by the UK’s asset owners.
This means that at every stage of development in NUAR, we have relied on asset owners’ participation to help shape NUAR into a platform that will ultimately meet their needs.
Using an agile approach has ensured that we are flexible enough to cater to new requirements as NUAR starts to become used by asset owners. In London, it has been fantastic to see regular attendance of 60+ users at sessions where we discussed the current and future state of NUAR, and where we facilitated collaboration and discussion with each other.
We thank all asset owners for their open and honest feedback which will continue to influence and drive the development of the platform going forward.
What lies beyond
Formal participation on NUAR is just step one. The next challenge, until NUAR is fully operational in 2025, will be for asset owners to integrate the platform into their existing practices.
Many of London's utility providers also operate outside of the Greater London boundary, so the planned rollout of the NUAR Minimum Viable Product (MVP) in the remaining regions of England and Northern Ireland by spring 2024 will enable adoption across their entire area of operation. We will continue to support our asset owners in London on this journey and look forward to future asset owners joining NUAR throughout the country.
In September 2021, following a competitive procurement round, the Geospatial Commission appointed AtkinsRéalis to deliver the ‘build phase’ of NUAR. AtkinsRéalis are working with Ordnance Survey, 1Spatial, GeoPlace and the Greater London Authority.