It will take a digital revolution to successfully navigate the UK’s post-Brexit social policy minefield

Mark Bew

Whichever Government emerges to lead the nation after next week’s General Election, the UK faces some tough, potentially radical decisions across the spectrum of public policy and social service provision during the next parliament. How do we afford the growing social care burden; how do we tackle the on-going housing crisis; how will we meet the increasing demand for public and personal transport; what can we do to halt the deteriorating air quality levels in our cities? All enormous challenges that will face the incoming administration.

To add to the challenges of such demands the complex Brexit negotiations and their impact on the UK economy will provide the backdrop and rightly the focus for everything the new Government does over the next decade. Finding the best, most viable solutions to these challenging social problems is not going to be easy, especially as we try and grow our markets and create diverse export opportunities to augment and expand existing EU exports.

In short, we need to find a new way. A new way that not only boosts the productivity of the UK’s public service delivery and the creation and operation of the infrastructure that underpins it, but that also allows us to better prioritise where precious resources should be focused in the future. As we press forward with the new Digital Built Britain programme, bringing together Building Information Modelling, sensor technology and the Smart Cities programme, it is becoming increasingly obvious that high quality information – and the technology that allows us to access it – is key to creating this sustainable future.

To this end, I am encouraged by the progress that the UK is making to develop the skills and strategies that will underpin this revolution. As pointed out earlier last month in the annual BIM survey by technical information provider NBS, there is still work to do for many in the public sector when it comes to embracing the power of BIM and digital technology, but the fact that over 60% of the industry supply chain has now embraced BIM as core to the delivery of client services shows just how far we have come and why we are the envy of the world.

As part of our Level 2 programme we are now on a common learning curve and the challenges pointed to by the NBS survey show just what a challenge this transformation is. However, we now have and are continuing to develop world-leading digital skills and can point to the vital efficiencies, cost savings and productivity gains that we know will be needed to drive a post-Brexit UK economy.

The question remains how we will accelerate the move forward from this very strong start. How will we make the leap from more efficient design and construction to see value through the delivery of better social outcomes for the public? On one level that means using technology to boost the efficiency of maintenance and operation to keep infrastructure operating more reliably. It also means being able to use information and live sensor data on asset performance to actively manage performance, such as energy consumption, or being able to monitor and react to real traffic flow so as to reduce congestion and improve air quality.

The use of performance feedback data also means we can use that data to plan for the future. It means being better able to predict energy, transport or water demand, to improve transport safety by automating vehicles and smoothing peak demands or using technology to ensure that waste is minimised, reused and recycled. Imagine using digital infrastructure to break down the current Government spending silos – perhaps being able to take pressure off the National Health Service simply by reducing the number of traffic accidents or by reducing respiratory problems through improving air quality and public health. But to do this we are going to have to change. Our ability to manage this data, make sense of it and create the culture required to act are all challenges we are going to have to meet head-on.

In the hailstorm of General Election campaigning and argument, it is easy to lose sight of how public policy decisions can transform the lives of the population. A digitally enabled future must be central to delivering a sustainable UK infrastructure; for it to also enable the ambition of a more sustainable society, we have as much to do as an industry as does the Government and we must face these challenges together.

Mark Bew leads the UK’s Digital Built Britain programme and is chairman of engineering consultancy PCSG