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Measurement for our planet

Following COP26, discover how NPL plays a key role in enabling climate action through the delivery of accurate, reliable data that supports decision making and enables low carbon innovation.

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Looking forward with the benefit of foresight

Foresighting is all about looking to the future

James Claverley, Government Relations and Partnership Manager, NPL

As we begin to settle into the ‘next normal’, it is interesting to think about how the past 18 months might have been different if we could have foreseen how COVID-19 was going to disrupt our lives. Could we have been better prepared? Should healthcare have adopted digital sooner? Why did it take a pandemic to make companies embrace flexible working? Did we imagine that international travel could stop so quickly and for so long? Will the reduction in pollution benefit our environment? 

At the beginning of 2020 NPL was completing a yearlong Foresighting project. The work identified the major trends in the future of society and industry and analysed which technologies would be crucial to enable them. Then, with NPL’s unique role as the UK’s National Metrology Institute (NMI), we explored the implications for metrology, the science of measurement. 

We found that the rapid pace of technological development was making demands on our measurement infrastructure but was also enabling new ways of taking more accurate measurements and of disseminating the units of measurement. We examined six example industry sectors, one of which was healthcare. Unsurprisingly, one of the key threats we examined was the possibility of a global pandemic – however none of us could have guessed how quickly the imagined scenario would become a reality. 


The conclusions for Technology and Measurement Foresighting were:

  1. Metrology will support a digitally enabled global measurement infrastructure

All industries will increasingly rely on digital technology for controlling processes, planning their activities and communicating with customers. Any new technologies, from better sensors to sophisticated algorithms and AI, will rely on more accurate measurements with lower uncertainty to be resilient, safe and trusted.  

  1. Metrology will improve understanding of complex systems

The human body and the climate are examples of complex systems which we are keen to understand and manage. This is especially difficult in situations where these complex systems interact, such as the trying to understand the effect of climate change on human health and wellbeing. To do this we rely on combining scientific measurements with data which is more subjective or uncertain. A ‘metrology mindset’ allows us to analyse complex systems in a logical way.  

  1. Metrology will give confidence in decision making 

Measurements allow us to make decisions – from accepting or rejecting a manufactured product against set criteria to determining safety levels of chemical or pollutants. Making good decisions relies on making accurate measurements, communicating them effectively and understanding uncertainty.   


Now is a good time to look to the future, set new priorities and understand our role in building back better after the pandemic. Technology and Measurement Foresighting provides an insight for NPL and wider society into the role technology will play in the future and is a useful reference as we set our future strategy. NPL regularly reviews its strategy, ensuring it is aligned with industry needs, government priorities and societal requirements, and supports our national mission. Our work on Foresighting has proved a valuable summary of the likely changes that we can expect to see and gives clear pointers for how metrology will be vital to prepare for these changes.  

For several years NMIs have been carrying out calibrations and tests digitally, or remotely, and as digital knowledge management and dissemination tools become the norm, we will also increasingly turn to the use of digital calibration certificates. The redefinition of the SI units in 2019 in terms of constants that describe the natural world will help shorten traceability chains and encourage local realisation of the units – both of which can be made more efficient and simpler using digital technology. It is a priority within NPL’s strategy, and one of the main conclusions of our Foresighting work, to lead the development of a digitally enabled global measurement infrastructure, in order to support the UK to ‘build back better’. 

NPL is undertaking a wide range of activities in support of many government priorities, including achieving net zero by 2030, tackling climate change and preparing for COP26. The climate is an extremely complex system, with many contributing and interdependent causes and effects. NPL aims to develop the metrology needed to improve our understanding of complex systems and give confidence to decision makers. Our work will allow us to understand, merge and compare measurement of climate variables and build reliable data on activities that influence the climate. 

As preparations for COP26 gather pace we are keen to use our science to have a positive and lasting impact. A ‘metrology mindset’ will be a valuable tool for combining climate and environmental data from different sources and of varying quality, examining trends over time and taking a global rather than local view in order to decide how to have minimise the impact and enable good decisions to be made. 

Sir Patrick Vallance, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, was one of many experts we spoke to in the course of our Foresighting project, and he said:  “We need to continue blue-sky research and it needs to be clear that’s what it is, not impact-driven. But it is also very important to implement accelerated translation of research into useable results”. Our Foresighting work has helped us identify key research area, including several blue-sky topics, which has informed our strategy. We are now translating Foresighting into useable innovative solutions to ensure our cutting-edge measurement science has a positive impact in the real world and enables industry to flourish in post-pandemic UK. 

Find out more about Foresighting here.

Read the conclusions from Foresighting here.

Find out more about NPL's Measurement for Our Planet campaign.

20 Oct 2021