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Live Labs 2 blog - DfT's Chief Scientific Adviser looks at the ambitions for Live Labs 2

Sarah Sharples is the Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department for Transport (DfT) and is a member of the Live Labs 2 Commissioning Board. In this month’s blog, Sarah tells us about her role at DfT and her ambitions for Live Labs 2.

My role at DfT is to provide independent challenge and advice to the department, but also to help them embed thinking about science, engineering, innovation and technology in transport policy and delivery. It's an interesting and varied job, which I really enjoy. One day I might find myself in a meeting talking about the potential of hydrogen for the future transport system, while on another I could be talking about how we can enable artificial intelligence to embed automation effectively in future transport technologies. I also work across government with Chief Scientific Advisers from other departments. I do this role as a secondment from the University of Nottingham, where I am a Professor in Human Factors.

Live Labs 2 - effective pull through of science, engineering, and innovation into local transport settings

As part of my role to provide independent challenge to the department, a DfT Minister asked for my advice when the Live Labs programme was proposed and I was pleased to give it my strong support. The scale of Live Labs, along with the partnership with ADEPT, is a powerful way of understanding how we can deploy new transport technologies in a range of different local settings around the UK. As soon as I saw the proposal for Live Labs 2, I thought there was a great opportunity to ensure that we could have effective pull through of science, engineering, and innovation into our local transport settings.

In autumn 2021, I went along to one of the ADEPT conferences. It was one of the first conferences I had attended since the COVID lockdowns, and it was fantastic to learn about the diversity of work that had emerged during Live Labs 1. However, I also thought that we could be even more ambitious by having a really holistic approach to the projects. It's important that we enable local authorities to learn from each other to be able to understand what technologies work in what types of situations and what we need to understand to effectively deploy those technologies. So, I was really pleased with the approach taken in Live Labs 2, where we've got much more of a collective approach to the delivery of the programme.

Four interconnected themes intrinsically linked to the development of new scientific solutions and innovation

The four interconnected themes – ‘a UK centre of excellence for materials’, a ‘Corridor and place based decarbonisation’, ‘a green carbon laboratory’, and ‘a future lighting test bed’ – are intrinsically linked to the development of new scientific solutions and innovation. Live Labs 2 is one of the biggest research and development (R&D) programmes being funded by DfT at the moment and at the time of its launch, we also launched a call for a research hub, in partnership with UKRI as part of their ‘building a Green Future’ programme. That research hub is going to provide new scientific discovery and solutions for transport infrastructure across a range of different contexts in the UK, and is a great example of how science can play a role in Live Labs 2.

I am really pleased to be on the Commissioning Board, where our role is to provide independent scrutiny and support to the work of the Live Labs 2 programme. There's a fantastically diverse set of people on the Board representing different views, with strong experience in data analysis, in implementation of technologies, and in delivery of policy in a range of different settings. Then there’s me, taking a scientific perspective.

Ensuring Live Labs 2 succeeds is very important to us and therefore, we provide a combination of independent assurance and challenge, but also identify opportunities for advocacy, support and partnership for the projects. I have recently agreed to take over the role of Vice Chair of the Commissioning Board and I am enjoying working with colleagues at ADEPT in supporting its delivery.

Ambitions for Live Labs 2

In terms of my ambitions for Live Labs 2, I think the first thing the programme will deliver is partnership – both working with people who are developing and deploying technologies, as well as partnership between the local authorities that need to think about transport systems as parts of a much wider piece of the agenda. The second thing I am hoping for is the acceleration of the deployment and use of technologies that should not only reduce the carbon impact of transport more generally across the country, but should also save money and be an economically viable and impactful solution. For example, we know there are some important challenges around decarbonisation of materials that we need to address.

The Knowledge Bank that will be developed as part of that UK centre of excellence for materials could be helpful for all the local authorities and users of local roads materials across the UK. If we then think about the future lighting test bed, understanding the requirements for lighting in a range of different settings could also be helpful for local authorities, as it is an initiative which is considering not only the requirements around decarbonisation but also supporting and sustaining that balance between cost effectiveness of delivering lighting technologies, and safety and security.

The ultimate success of Live Labs 2 will be that technologies identified and developed during the programme are used within our transport system – not only by the local authorities that have been partners of the Live Labs projects, but also by other local authorities who have had the opportunity to learn about these innovations through ADEPT. I am also keen to see sustainability of the consortia that have been established through Live Labs 2, and I really hope that we will end up with a UK network of excellence between all the partners that will take and improve the implementation of novel solutions for local transport forward into the future.

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