It is well known that the global economy needs to become more sustainable to preserve and protect our planet and mitigate the impact of climate change.

Mathematical optimisation is a framework well-placed to address some of the key sustainability challenges we are facing. These challenges entail maximising efficiency, profitability and customer experience in the face of constrained resources. In this article we will take a deep dive into this idea, exploring why sustainability is critical to our future, the ways in which optimisation can facilitate the transition to a sustainable future through the lens of the transport sector, and how you can kick-start your optimisation journey.

Sustainable Development

Sustainable development recognises that our present choices have long-term impacts for future generations, and that needs of today cannot be met at the expense of tomorrow. Appreciating the importance of this, in September 2015 the United Nations Member States adopted a shared sustainability blueprint, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, for ending poverty, improving health and education, and spurring economic growth whilst tackling climate change and working to preserve the biodiversity of our natural world.

This sustainability blueprint is an action plan built around the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), each with specified targets and indicators. Sustainable energy access (SDG 7) is a prominent example and indeed System Operators around the world, such as National Grid ESO, are already making reforms to bring on higher penetration of renewable energy sources and storage, from modernising optimisation algorithms for energy dispatch to reforming methodologies for setting system reserve.

Dr Jamie Beacom Senior mathematical consultant  Improved efficiency in movement of people, Better health e.g. through reductions in urban air pollution, Supporting social mobility through affordable access to a range of opportunities, Enhanced urban-rural linkages, Better integration of the economy. The SDGs are an interlinked set of challenges requiring coordinated, cohesive approaches to ensure that we are able to transition towards responsible consumption and production (SDG 12) and ensure healthy lives promoting well-being for all (SDG 3).

Implementing sustainable change has benefits beyond the obvious world-saving critical headlines. From creating new jobs and stimulating the economy to providing ethical brand alignment with discerning customers from Generations Z and Alpha, sustainability is key to unlocking future business value.

Public Transport and Sustainability

Almost a quarter of energy-related global greenhouse gas emissions come from transport. getting more people on public transport will play a critical part of meeting net-zero targets.

However, the role of public transport in developing sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11) goes beyond emissions reduction. Trains and buses play a significant role in our day-to-day lives, and strong public transport systems come with many benefits including:

Transitions towards more sustainable public transport systems are already underway worldwide for example, through deployment of electric vehicle (EV) bus fleets and rail network electrification.

There are myriad challenges in this transition but a primary challenge for operators is increasing patronage. For example, without a reliable service catering to public needs, operators will not be able to combat the existing car-centric attitude and attract the new passengers needed to support sustainable transitions.

Alongside this, there are specific technical challenges operators and Local Authorities (LAs) are presented with.

For example, 

  • Existing networks tend to have been built in an adhoc fashion on top of legacy networks, and may not maximise the service efficiency or resource utilisation,
  • Infrastructure for sustainable change, such as EV charging stations and dedicated bus lanes, can be substantial, with the initial investment significant for smaller operators and LAs,
  • Range and performance of fleet is a critical factor for some services e.g., electric buses, and can be impacted by adverse weather e.g. cold or freezing temperatures,
  • Fleet and infrastructure maintenance becomes both more specialised and costly, and is critical to keeping buses on roads, trains on tracks, and maintaining an attractive level of service,
  • End-to-end public transport service requires an integrated and cohesive transport system comprising buses, trams, trains, and ferries.

Supporting sustainable development in public transport is a major challenge requiring complex planning and strategising for effective implementation. It also requires two perspectives: what can we do right now, and what can we do to enable long-term change?

Enter: Optimisation

The challenge of sustainability, to maximise potential in the face of limited resources, is precisely the kind of problem which optimisation is well placed to help with. For example, our TakeAIM competition winner from 2021, Cathie Wells, has been exploring how optimisation can be used right now to reduce total climate impact of long-haul flights.

Deployment of optimisation tools enables companies and governments to use their data effectively, generate consistently actionable insights, and give decision makers a firm footing.

Understanding where optimisation can be deployed in your business is an important step towards unlocking greater value within your operations.

Optimisation for operational aspects like timetabling and duty scheduling is already a core part of public transport day-to-day business, taking account of key operational constraints such as drivers’ hours regulations. Expanding the range of optimisation applications in the bus industry for short- to medium-term change could include:

  • Leveraging historical data to ensure networks incorporate the core journeys people are making with ease.
  • Network planning for “green” transport networks, building bus routes which minimise emissions from existing non-electric vehicles whilst maintaining core service levels,
  • Green Demand Rapid Transport (DRT) systems, optimising services in real-time to meet demand,
  • Efficient allocation of EVs to routes given known range, passenger demand and road characteristics.
  • Management of EV charging cycles to maximise battery lifetime, minimising ongoing maintenance and replacement costs,
  • Opportunities to support electricity grid management through Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) technology for EV buses whilst keeping the bottom line down,
  • Fine-tuning fleet maintenance schedules using historical data to extend lifetime and allow buses to spend more time on the road providing a reliable alternative to cars

Long-term investment for sustainability will take a more strategic point of view. Part of what makes this challenging are the timescales involved (often decades); an increasing range of investment pathways as innovation generates new technologies; complex interactions between different technologies, policies and government priorities; and, of course, the evolution of passenger demand. All of this is subject to operational constraint of meeting demand with supply.

Optimisation can provide a strategic support tool for operators, local authorities, and governments. This provides a framework in which investment decisions minimising total cost can be explored whilst enforcing conditions which, for example, prevent mutually incompatible technologies or policies being taken forward.

Beginning your optimisation journey

Optimisation requires four key components to tackle complex operational and business challenges: data, mathematical modelling, algorithms and deployment. Together, these components comprise a “Digital Twin” in which the reality of your real-world business problems are translated in a way which allows you to control, understand and experiment to find the most effective approach.

The first step in building this Digital Twin is to explore the available data to understand your problem. There has been an explosion in the amount of data available to businesses in recent years coupled with the expanded power of optimisation to extract value from that data. Developing a strong, coherent data strategy from the outset is a critical step to maximising the value you can extract. We might start off with asking:

  • What data is available and where does it come from?
  • How was it collected and has it undergone any processing?
  • How clean is it and how complete is it?
  • Are there any restrictions on what we can do with it?
  • Which questions could we answer with this data?
  • How will the data we want to use be stored and accessed?

Modelling provides the translation of your real-world problem into mathematics. Models should be as simple as possible whilst still being valid for the planned usage. The intended purpose of a model element must remain a key factor in deciding whether and how to incorporate it. Involving those who will use the Digital Twin at this step is a critical part of getting it right: you are the experts on your own business needs.

Optimisation algorithms are the engine turning data and models into solutions. However, it is not going to help if the solutions we get are not actionable. Great optimisation algorithms can help deliver solutions in practical time frames, while involving end-users in validation of the solutions can help identify areas of the modelling or data which haven’t quite hit the nail on the head. Knowing where and when to go back and review the models or data is an important step in iterating towards a great solution.

Translating all of this into value for your business requires one more step: deployment. This key step places your Digital Twin where it can offer actionable insight and strategic support and make a lasting impact in your drive towards sustainability.

Why should we care?

Unsustainable development affects us all: we use natural resources to sustain us, but these resources are finite. Diminishing resources have a range of knock-on impacts, from the prices people pay for goods and services to reductions in public health.

Wherever your business is on your optimisation or sustainability journey, Smith Institute can support you.

We have helped clients across a wide range of sectors including energy, defence, spectrum, FMCG and government. We work throughout the entire optimisation process, from identifying the most relevant data for your business; guiding you through the development of an optimisation and data strategy; working with you to prove the concept of your projects; and, supporting deployment of world-class optimisation tools in-house.

If you would like to understand more about optimisation’s role in a more sustainable future, get in touch.