14 December 2018

In 1985, the film 'Back to the Future' imagined life in 2015.  Thirty years later, some predictions turned out to be accurate: automation of services; the use of biometrics; and virtual reality eyewear. However, our skies aren't full of flying cars and the uptake of hoverboards hasn't been quite so widespread.

Clearly, trying to predict the future is filled with challenges. Yet in the world of strategic infrastructure planning, it is necessary to project into the future: indeed our emerging transport strategy will run to 2050.

No one can doubt that, with the pace of change in technology, data , consumer expectations and our relationship with the environment,  the way we move around is likely to change fundamentally in the not too distant future.  And this is particularly true for the area served by England's Economic Heartland. 

Our economy could double, or even triple, between now and 2050.   Growth on this scale is transformational, it is not 'business as usual', and we need to realise this economic potential while still ensuring environmental 'net gain'.

Our transport strategy plays a fundamental role in this.  Its over-arching vision is 'connecting our people and places with opportunities and services'.  Given the timeframe, it needs to be realistic yet visionary. And it needs to deliver for our current needs as well as the medium and long term. 

Yet, how possible is this? Can we plan as far into the future as we need to? The short answer is – while there are risks, they would be greater if we did not.

And while technological advancements make the future uncertain, they are also making it easier to test the impacts of what it might hold. Our virtual simulation tool allows us simulate the way people will move in and around the Heartland area now and in the future. This enables data-driven transport decisions in timeframes that may not have been possible in the past. 

But there are things we simply cannot account for yet - I recently read that two-thirds of children in school today will end up doing a job that hasn't even been invented.

So to produce a transport strategy which is fit for the future, we need to take the best of data-driven intelligence so we can inform and plan a transport network. But we also need to be prepared for change – transport systems of the future need flexibility to rise to the challenge and opportunity of technological advancement because, be in no doubt, it will come. 

Naomi Green is England's Economic Heartland's Head of Technical Programme