by April Shepherd, Journalist, Infrastructure magazine

The world is changing at a rapid pace, with industries having to consider the critical infrastructure needed to sustain many generations to come. Dr Ian Oppermann, Chief Data Scientist for the NSW Government and Industry Professor at UTS, joined this year’s Critical Infrastructure: Digitisation Series program to discuss the new world of digital infrastructure, from 6G and safe data sharing, to all-encompassing IoT networks.

In his keynote presentation at the Cloud Infrastructure: Opportunities in digital infrastructure Virtual Conference – day two of the Digitisation Series – Dr Oppermann discussed the UN Sustainable Development Goals, outlining a future desirable vision of how the world could look by 2030.

Dr Oppermann is set to meet with the International Standards Community (IEC) to discuss how different standards in electro- technical and information communications technology will support Australia and other countries to deliver on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 goals ranging from ending poverty to clean air, clean water, clean land and smart sustainable cities.

“Smart sustainable cities is one of the goals which is particularly relevant to Australia, because many people are developing their strategies for future infrastructure with 2030 in mind, and then looking, of course, beyond that 2040, 2050,” Dr Oppermann said.

Future 6G mobile communications business ecosystems

Dr Ian Oppermann

Dr Oppermann discussed 6G research and development, which is currently underway and being led out of Finland.

6G is targeted for release before 2030, and could help deliver on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. He also highlighted that 6G is not the end of the development of communications technology.

“By 2050, we’ll be looking at not 6G, but probably 8G mobile communicators. And of course it continues. Those global trends of aging, urbanising and growing population will continue in the long term. We also know we live with a changing climate, and so where we grow food and where we draw calories from is also changing,” Dr Oppermann said.

“When we think about where we’re going, that future world of 6G, it’s already starting to look quite different from the world of 2021.

“In the world of standards, there’s a lot of work being done right now to ensure that data, AI, electro-technical systems and devices are secure, green, and increasingly interoperable.”

6G will likely not only change the radio spectrum used, but lead to creation of new materials and reduce the overall energy consumption of a network, which as Dr Oppermann explains, will become increasingly high as technology advances and IoT technology moves along.

“At the moment, it’s estimated that, for example, data centres around the world consume about two per cent of the world’s energy, increasing as more and more data is used to manage, operate, and optimise networks,” Dr Oppermann said.

“In fact, it’s the data itself which becomes the major focus of networks, moving it around and creating value in many parts of the network. The total percentage of the world energy budget used by data, analytics and telecommunications will almost certainly increase to a point where we really need to start asking the question about whether it’s appropriate to spend that much of our global energy budget on communications.”

Dr Oppermann also discussed the way that communications may evolve, to not have a ‘centre’ of the network, with network management and optimisation taking place in a highly localised way. A decentralised network could also assist with potential future privacy concerns.

“Part of the thinking of future materials for 6G is that these will potentially be woven into your shirt, built into your shoes, sprayed onto surfaces or fabricated into building material. Literally everything could communicate with everything else,” Dr Oppermann said.

“But each and every one of those elements of the network also becomes a data source.”

Drones, data sharing and privacy 

Dr Oppermann touched on what the future of communication infrastructure may look like, using the example of drone technology.

The use of drones is becoming increasingly common. They are being thought about as a means of providing hotspot communications, and possibly supplying communications in high traffic hotspots.

“A drone may, for example, follow you on your journey to work, the drone may hover above your house all day, carrying out a whole range of different services beyond communications, opening up considerations of privacy and consent in future networks,” Dr Oppermann said.

“A drone is a fairly innocuous example, but increasingly we’re interacting with intelligent devices. And increasingly we’re relying on intelligent devices to drive productivity and drive that seamless digital experience, and that enhanced personalisation.”

There are expectations that in the future, machine-to-machine communications will become the most significant component of the network. As an example, this could be drones operating not in isolation, but in swarms, with many thousands of devices operating in a coordinated fashion.

“For future communications systems, we are stretching that ‘blanket’ of resources in the form of network coverage, capacity, reliability, security and density ever further, and increasingly targeting machines and devices as the recipients and even the creators of that data and creators of those services,” Dr Oppermann said.

Building trust in the new network

It’s evident already that building trust in networks that control autonomous devices is critical, and will become an ever more important part of this new ecosystem of digital infrastructure as the future progresses.

Trusting networks that control aspects of day-to-day life and networks that hold precious data will be critical as cloud infrastructure and IoT grow.

“If we’ve got a network which is controlling an autonomous device, and we’re relying on that control for that vehicle to behave appropriately, and behave as we expect, we are explicitly trusting the network. In fact, that becomes critical trust in the case of an autonomous vehicle,” Dr Oppermann said.

NSW: a case study in planning for a digital future 

Dr Oppermann said NSW is showing an especially strong focus on digital infrastructure, which is appropriate when considering the state’s future and its own versions of the global trends of an aging urbanising population.

“NSW recently held a smart ‘city’ event, the NSW Smart Places Summit in August, at which NSW announced the Smart Western City Program as well as a 5G strategy and trials. Both the strategy and trials support development of a ‘smart’ city in the area,” Dr Oppermann said.

“These timeframes of 2030 may seem futuristic, it may seem beyond reach, but they’re actually baked into people’s planning right now, and also being baked into thinking about the communications infrastructure.”

In 2020, NSW released its Smart Places Strategy, integrating communications infrastructure into the strategy, which includes the use of digital twins. Digital twins layer digital engineering models, IoT sensor data, and environmental data into a digital model of the built and natural environment.

“Transport for NSW has created digital twins of smart infrastructure projects. A digital twin is brought to life through the use of a variety of different datasets, to help with the build, the operations, and maintenance of different pieces of physical infrastructure,” Dr Oppermann said.

NSW Spatial Services has created a digital twin of the whole state by linking spatial datasets, creating a whole range of new ways of visualising or exploring NSW through data.

Dr Oppermann explains that as the use of data to understand a community at fine-grained level increases, security and privacy become more important issues. As part of the Smart Places Strategy, the NSW Department of Planning Infrastructure and Environment is also developing a Customer Charter in consultation with communities.

Under the charter, the NSW Government and its agencies will make sure data is collected, managed and stored securely to protect privacy. NSW also released its AI strategy in 2020, which Dr Oppermann said is again outcome-focused.

“We want to improve productivity, we want to improve the quality of life for people in NSW, but we need to do so in a way which ensures transparency, is open, and is fair and demonstrates trustworthy and appropriate use of AI.

“Ultimately smart cities and AI are really cases of data sharing. So data is the big game.”

Dr Oppermann also said that NSW has been working with the world of standards, developing a data strategy, whilst keeping in mind real-world hesitancy towards sharing data and concerns regarding data quality leading to potentially poor quality insight or poor quality decisions.

“So once again, we’re working with the world standards, in this case, the focus around data management, AI, cloud computing and digital twins, to try and tackle residual challenges around data sharing and use to think about it in different ways.

“We are trying to understand the underlying reasons people are hesitant to share data. Often those concerns are expressed as relating to personal information, but the concerns often relate to a whole lot of other issues below the waterline and beyond issues of privacy.”

Dr Oppermann concluded his presentation by summarising how data and considerations of the whole lifecycle of data are central to future digital infrastructure.

“Ultimately it all comes down to understanding the use of data throughout its entire lifecycle. Whether the data is generated by a drone or generated by someone with paper and a clipboard, we need to consider concerns and data risks throughout that data lifecycle.

“It’s important for us to bear in mind what sort of data we’re dealing with, how sensitive the data itself is, how personal it is, and how sensitive uses of the data are,” Dr Oppermann said.

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