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Live Labs Blog: Sensible science - DfT’s Senior Policy Advisor, Matt Eglinton looks at the theory behind the Live Labs experiment

13 January 2020

We are all scientists in one way or another. We use tools and gather evidence to draw the conclusions that we employ to improve our everyday lives. But modern life is also exceptionally demanding. We don’t have time to think about how to be more efficient, we’re too busy juggling the operational side of life in the 21st century.

It’s the same for highways management. Britain has many truly fantastic people within the sector, committed to delivering better, safer road infrastructure. Our highway authorities work hard to ensure that our local roads and footways are sufficiently maintained and equipped for the needs of our villages, towns and cities.

However, it can be extremely tricky to balance ongoing operational objectives with developing new project-orientated ways of delivering a more effective service. Rather than being able to apply rigorous scientific reasoning to create innovative approaches, highways authorities can be forced to rely on older, tried and tested methods that may no longer be fit for purpose. Live Labs was created to provide space for them to explore and test.

Behind any research lies the scientific method. Relying on the simple core principles of hypothesis, experiment and analysis, it is a necessary building block for any meaningful advancement, innovation or efficiency. Maximising the validity and value of scientific endeavour requires the proper application of existing knowledge, objectivity and honesty, and a commitment to being collegiate and open, so that wider society may benefit from the findings.

In his 1974 commencement address at the California Institute of Technology (Feynman, 1985) physicist Richard Feynman invoked the informal approach to communicating the basic principles of science: “…if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid - not only what you think is right about it; other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked - to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.”

The ADEPT Live Labs programme has been designed with Dr Feynman and those scientific core principles in mind. Each Lab will generate vast amounts of data, sharing both success and failure. This what is so refreshing - failure can now be an option, properly documented and shared. With over 150 highway authorities across England, it’s critical that ideas are only replicated when a hypothesis has been proven to work, so that valuable resources can be channelled effectively, making savings to the public purse.   

It is great that local authorities and the private sector are investigating together how we can embrace new advances in making revenue savings, data collection, navigation systems, use mobile technologies and robotics, and use different materials to help harvest energy. It will help transform how we manage and maintain our local highways, now and in the future.

The Government is keen to see innovation shape the country for the better, and is fully behind this agile, unified approach. Each project’s real-world testing of new road surfaces and technologies that interact with actual people, will help establish which emerging innovations provide long-term workable solutions. If this two-year venture is successful, we hope that further Live Lab initiatives can be developed, setting the scene for the creation of a truly modern and integrated, living environment, with good, scientifically reasoned transport infrastructure at the heart of it.