Digitalization of Critical Public Infrastructure – is There More to it Than Security Threats?

Digitalization of assets in Critical Public Infrastructure (CPI) such as energy, rail, roads and water supply is increasing at an ever increasing pace, with hundreds of millions of additional sensors and intelligent components being installed additionally every year around the globe. In the next years the proliferation of digital components in physical assets will create an amount of “IT elements and networks” that goes well beyond the currently installed private and business IT. Looking at this development in those infrastructure areas that are crucial for our everyday wellbeing, comfort and safety, the question of security and integrity of a digitalized infrastructure emerges immediately. In 2012, Marc Elsberg published his blockbuster novel “Blackout”, in which he describes a total failure of electricity infrastructure due to a major hacking attack. This novel has added to a widespread public perception, that digitalization of our energy, water and telecom networks is posing a big threat to its operation and may represent a significant risk for the everyday functioning of our economy and society. So what is the good of it all?

Critical Public Infrastructure and the Internet of Things

Digitalization has already changed dramatically the efficiency and effectiveness of fundamental areas such as communication, banking and social interaction, and we see digitalization spreading rapidly in the realms of physical infrastructure assets. Whereas the next generation of industrial production is loudly announced as Industry 4.0, the digitalization of Critical Public Infrastructure goes somewhat unnoticed from the public, but not with less relevance for owners, operators and users of these vital backbones for our economy and society.

Technologies and concepts that drive digitalization of Critical Public Infrastructure are commonly known under the title ‘Internet of things”. When talking about intelligent or smart devices, components and systems, the development of sensors and embedded systems is key for the pace at which infrastructure will become digitalized. CSC estimates that the number of smart devices in infrastructure will grow by more than 6 times over the period of 2005 to 2020. This equals a growth rate of more than 10% of per year. As compared to this, the annual growth of net investments into global public infrastructure is only 2.7%.


Connecting the networks

By connecting infrastructure networks in digital terms, a vast potential of efficiency increases and new business models can be unleashed.

  • Information on Automotive traffic flows can be combined with the operation of electrical storage systems to optimize the availability of charging power for electric vehicles, while at the same time optimizing traffic flows
  • Water supply networks can be optimized with the operation of hydro-electric power generation in order to optimize the availability of water and electricity in areas of water scarcity
  • District heating networks can be effectively combined  with gas network operations to optimize the gas consumption by integrating meteo data and information and consumer behavior in households


The technology challenge

The first challenge lies in introducing smart devices in Critical Public Infrastructure and equipping existing infrastructure with sensors and embedded systems. One can imagine, that rendering for example rail infrastructure digital will require massive investments in sensors at tracks and in upgrading control and signaling equipment.

Secondly, network availability and capacity is key for providing connectivity in intelligent public infrastructure systems. This needs an ever increasing availability and bandwidth in wireless and fibre-optic broadband networks. It is obvious, that the currently used internet protocol IPv4 with 4bn available IP addresses will come to its limits very soon. Luckily, IPv6 (which was devised in 1996) will provide 340 sextillion IP addresses!

On a third point, only through the rise of cloud-based data storage, the large amounts of data that are created in the internet of things can be handled and processed in a viable way. Furthermore, the increasing availability of open source software is facilitating the growth of new operating and business models around digitalized physical assets.

The fourth challenge lies in the introduction of Big Data, Analytics and real-time data processing in order to leverage the potential that is offered by the massive amount of data that will be created in Infrastructure assets. In this context, the whole lifecycle of infrastructure assets from investment to operations will be subject to the transformational forces of digitalization.

Is it safe?

The most intuitive reaction to digitalization of Critical Public Infrastructure is the fear of hacker attacks that would compromise our comfort and safety. Electrical blackouts, polluted water, traffic chaos are only a few scenarios that we would relate to mal-functioning digitalized infrastructure systems. Indeed, the challenge of cybersecurity increases as more and more digital components and interfaces are present within infrastructure assets. Furthermore, new operational methods and system inter-operation increase the complexity of the whole system and makes it vulnerable for inherently or externally induced failures. However, if we look at the heritage of operational systems like SCADA and the hardware that these systems are currently run on, one might argue that, even though we will increasingly use technology in the future, the introduction of new technology will be intrinsically coupled with more strict security considerations. There is another point to security and digitalization: Future operation models in public infrastructure will increasingly favor decentralized operation & control architecture models, as for example for decentralized electricity infrastructure. Considering that hacking multiple decentralized systems simultaneously is much more complex than breaking into one centralized system gives a new perspective to the development of security and stability of decentrally organized infrastructure operations. Nevertheless, cyber security will become a key factor for operators of Critical Public Infrastructure, and appropriate standards, processes and organizational features need to be put in place.

What owners and operators should do now?

Although achieving a high degree of digitalization in Critical Public Infrastructure may still take some years, owners and operators should already today consider action in order to prepare for the opportunities and challenges of this transformation:

  1. Assess the state of digitalization of the current asset base and operations, and develop an overall digitalization strategy and roadmap that best reflects the expected development for the respective industry sector
  2. Develop first use cases that underline the shift from data collection to value-creating process improvement, operating modes and business models. Implement first prototypes in order to accelerate the learning curve towards a digitalized asset base.
  3. From an IT architecture perspective, develop early concepts on how the fast increasing amount of data and information from assets is best managed and leveraged, while maintaining the requested level of security.
  4. Actively participate in and shape the discussion on harmonized system architecture, protocols and standards for the application of IoT technologies in Critical Public Infrastructure. By actively joining development platforms and groups, become a part of the ecosystem of technology providers and actors in the relevant fields of digitalization of physical assets
  5. Take supportive action for the public acceptance of technology in Critical Public Infrastructure and support legislative development for a sound framework for technology and business development.

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