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Towards a digital twin: creating a new modelling ecosystem

Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) is looking to the future with its procurement of an innovative data and modelling ecosystem. Mike Waters, Director of Policy, Strategy and Innovation at TfWM, gives LTT an insight into West Midlands' practicalities and aspirations

Juliana O'Rourke
27 April 2018
The future West Midlands modelling capability will create a series of models able to cross-fertilise innovation
The future West Midlands modelling capability will create a series of models able to cross-fertilise innovation
TfWMs new modelling capacity will streamline operation across all modes
TfWMs new modelling capacity will streamline operation across all modes

 

What we have at the moment, says Mike Waters, Director of Policy, Strategy and Innovation at TfWM, is a very good, sophisticated, and comprehensive strategic transport model, created in collaboration with our metropolitan districts and Highways England. The architecture for this model was really cutting edge 15 years ago, he adds, and TfWM and the model supplier have continued to develop it over the years. ‘The current model is really useful for helping with local plans, large land use planning scenarios and strategic transport interventions,’ says Waters. ‘But there are gaps between what it can do and what we need it to do in future. West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has £350 million of new Government funding to support the delivery of new homes, and the model isn’t able to answer the questions that the private sector and investors may raise. As we bring forward our new housing deal, we need to think differently about how we make the case around investment, about how we lever in more private sector  –  and more local –investment, and how we make the business case to bring supporting infrastructure and transport services forward along with housing growth. As we invest in land remediation and seek to put investment in transport “up front”, we need to have different kinds of conversations.’

The business models for this kind of discussion are different to the old-school, major scheme business case model, says Waters. That isn’t to say that Green Book appraisal and WebTAG should in any way be disregarded, he stresses; rather that TfWM needs to consider different kinds of business cases that the current model doesn’t help them with. ‘Our new modelling capability needs to provide us with new views around commercially-led business case development. We are interested in land value capture, business rates, employment and residential metrics, all things that traditional transport models struggle with. We also need to be looking much more closely at the operational environment. We have some huge – and very welcome –  challenges in the West Midlands around the sheer volume of construction taking place as we build HS2, as we triple the size of the Metro Network, we introduce Bus Rapid Transit, upgrade the motorway network around the West Midlands and plan for the Commonwealth Games. These are key operational challenges and the strategic land use and transport modelling platform, as it currently stands, is not the best platform for moving towards a “digital twin” of the environment.’

Our new modelling capability needs to provide us with new views around commercially-led business case development. We are interested in land value capture, business rates, employment and residential metrics, all things that traditional transport models struggle with

Keith Homer, Transport Data Framework Manager for TfWM, adds that the new modelling capability must focus on transport modelling that looks outwards to the big questions that society faces. ‘It must address the aspirations of local people and inform evidenced-based decision-making by leaders across all spheres of public governance. That will be truly strategic, and TfWM intends to drive this modelling agenda forward. We are going for an agile, open and transparent model, structured in a modular way. We want to be able to test the sensitivity across our region to the emerging trends and mobility options that will be available in future.’

Moving forwards

There is a great deal we can do with the data and intelligence that we collect now, says Waters, but by processing it in a different way we can move towards a more accurate, “closer-to-life” view of the transport network across all modes. TfWM has restructured the way it goes about collecting data, changed the supply chain around data collection, and launched a new capability in processing and understanding data. The next steps, which will be taken over the next 12 to 18 months, are to analyse that data in a more sophisticated way so that TfWM moves towards a more comprehensive, 

synthetic view of the operational data across its transport network.

The challenges now faced by the WMCA, and those coming in the near future, are very different from those of the past. ‘Yes, we need to make traditional transport business cases to support both our own devolved governance and further bidding activity, but we also have to think differently about commercial perspectives and commercial business cases around investment,’ says Waters. ‘We must also create a quantified operational environment that goes beyond basic observations to release true insight, and which simulates operational scenarios so we can make better day-to-day and week-to-week decisions about how we manage the network.’

‘We’re looking at creating a series of models that work together for different modes and levels, from agent-based and conventional junction or corridor models to local area and regional models. We’re also heavily involved in the development of real-world R&D for connected and autonomous vehicles and Mobility as a Service in the West Midlands. At the moment, all of this is happening in isolation from our day-to-day “vanilla” transport modelling, and this misses many opportunities to cross-fertilise innovation. At a different level again, we have our broader economic questions around industrial growth, business rates, commercial returns and land value changes arising from transport interventions. These need different models, functioning at different levels, but fundamentally there is a common set of assumptions and data that need to run between them all.  We are thinking of this as a modelling ecosystem. Where we need engagement from industry, innovators and academia is in defining this ecosystem so our development capability can be progressed in a positively disruptive way over the next 10 to 15 years, and in collaboration with the wide range of practitioners across the market.’

The messages that Waters will be emphasising at Modelling World are that the West Midlands authorities have a number of exciting challenges and are looking to shape a new approach to the way they “do” modelling, plus that they are very interested in working with the many companies doing new and interesting things in this area. Following on from Modelling World  TfWM will hold a workshop to refine and shape, along with consultants, start-ups and universities, the vision and architecture for a new West Midlands modelling ecosystem. It will launch, at Modelling World, a process for Expression of Interests to take part in this.  But to take things forward, TfWM recognises that industry holds many of the answers to today’s questions and is employing a conventional procurement format (see box) to formulate the services that we will purchase to meet our immediate modelling needs. Its next step is to publish a set of agenda-setting documents and hold a Supplier Engagement Day on Tuesday 5 June – the day before Modelling World – at its offices in Birmingham (for information contact ).  For more information about TfWM’s Strategic Transport Modelling service procurement, register at https://www.wmca.org.uk/procurement. Pre-registration will be required

There is also a networking dinner on the evening of June 5 which will be addressed by TfWM Managing Director Laura Shoaf. Booking details online

Mike Waters and Stuart Lester, Data Innovation Lead for TfWM, will both be speaking at Modelling World 2018 in June

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