Constructing a Digital Environment

FAAM plane flying next to the RRS Discovery

The Constructing a Digital Environment Strategic Priorities Fund programme aims to develop the digitally enabled environment which benefits policymakers, businesses, communities and individuals. This will happen by creating an integrated network of sensors (in situ and remote sensing based), methodologies and tools for assessing, analysing, monitoring and forecasting the state of the natural environment. This will be done at higher spatial resolutions and at higher frequency than previously possible. This would support responses to acute events but also inform our understanding of long-term environmental change. Multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary research and innovation will aid in the successful construction of a 'digital environment'.

Announcement of Opportunity: Constructing a Digital Environment – Demonstrators

Closing date: 30 Jan

7 Nov 2019

NERC is inviting proposals for demonstrator projects costing up to £960,000 at 80% full economic cost, with a maximum duration of 24 months, as part of the Constructing a Digital Environment Programme.

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The Strategic Priorities Fund is a new collective fund across UK Research & Innovation (UKRI). It aims to better enable investment in cross-departmental research and innovation priorities across UKRI, thus increasing high quality multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary research and innovation, and positioning UKRI to be able to respond to strategic priorities and opportunities.

A recent workshop on environmental infrastructure highlighted requirements for observation, simulation and data infrastructure. This included the desire for distributed networks of environmental sensors, additional forms of autonomous data collection, a cyber-secure infrastructure, and citizen science. As part of its ambition for increasing data integration across its own environmental data centres, NERC has already funded a study which highlighted needs from the business community for new multi-disciplinary data products, including those utilising environmental sensor technology.

Advances in digital technology have led to a rapid increase in the volume of data being captured, curated and managed on a daily basis. Alongside this, new technologies have enabled a step-change in global capacity for integrated monitoring, analysis, modelling and visualisation of the natural environment at potentially transformative spatial and temporal scales. This could be used more efficiently to inform policymaking and benefit businesses, communities and individuals.

By harnessing these advances in technology and the UK's leading position in both environmental, observational and computer / data sciences, there is an opportunity to create a digitally enabled environment. This could be done through more integrated networks of sensors (in situ and remote sensing based), together with methodologies and tools for assessing, analysing, monitoring and forecasting the state of the natural environment at higher spatial resolutions and finer temporal scales than previously possible.

As such a digital environment will deliver the capacity to improve the understanding and modelling of longer term environmental change and the prediction of events. This will benefit a range of public and private sector users, and provide evidence to support both decision-making and operational activities within government departments and arm's length bodies.

The Strategic Priorities Fund represents an opportunity to build on the UK's current capabilities to look at what is technically feasible with regards to constructing a digital environment, and to establish an integrated network of practitioners in this area.


2018 - 2022

Can I apply for a grant?

Applications for the second round of feasibility studies are now open. The deadline is the 23 May 2019.


£10·4 million over the financial years 2018-2019 to 2021-2022.

Programme members

Constructing the Digital Environment is a Strategic Priorities Fund programme being led by NERC, and supported by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council and Defra.

Alongside a programme board and steering group, the programme has a number of parts: a 'champion' who oversees the programme, a network of (environmental and informatics) experts working with the champion to identify research ideas / gaps, a number of funded feasibility studies and, following on from these, demonstrators.

The programme has two co-champions; Ron Corstanje and Steve Hallett of Cranfield University:

  • Professor Ron CorstanjeRon Corstanje is Professor of Data Sciences and Head of the Centre for Environmental & Agricultural Informatics at Cranfield University. He specialises in the application of spatio-temporal models to understand the nature and behaviour of natural systems and its constituent processes.

    Environmental systems are complex, and this expresses itself as complex but determinable patterns. His research has applied quantitative methods which unravel this complexity, and help identify the underlying factors and developed novel quantitative techniques to help describe this complexity. The application of these approaches has led to significant advances in our understanding on the spatial dynamics of natural systems and in how we approach a measure of natural capital.

    Another key area in which these techniques have proven invaluable is in the nature and functioning of (eco)system resilience. Both these areas have significant societal significance, in helping inform how to infer resilience in the natural and man-made systems on which we depend, but also in how to design, plan and manage the natural environment to retain the benefits from the natural capital inherent in our green spaces.

    He joined Cranfield in 2008 after periods at Rothamsted Research and the University of Florida. He obtained his PhD from the University of Florida in 2003, and an environmental engineering degree from Wageningen University in 1997.

  • Professor Stephen HallettStephen Hallett is Associate Professor in Environmental Informatics at Cranfield University. He has long-standing expertise in the application of spatial decision-support systems, big data, GIS, remote sensing and informatics in environmental science, with particular reference to soil resource systems and the natural environment. His work involves modelling geohazards and the application of spatial, policy-oriented environmental decision-support systems. Stephen's research interests include agri-informatics; soil and land resource management; geohazards and urban infrastructure; and environmental risk mitigation and climate change impacts.

    Stephen has a responsibility for Cranfield's land information system - external link, holding the national soil datasets for England and Wales, and its international equivalent - external link. He is the Director of the NERC / Economic & Social Research Council centre for doctoral training in big data and environmental risk mitigation, Data, Risk & Environmental Analytical Methods (DREAM CDT), and is the Cranfield manager within the NERC CENTA2 Doctoral Training Centre - external link.

    Stephen sits on the governing board of the Data & Analytics Facility for National Infrastructure - external link within the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure & Cities.