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Debate | Digital Transformation

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As the government’s recently released Industrial Strategy concludes, the world is going through a fourth industrial revolution – and Britain had better get ready.

To this end, the 255-page strategy published in November set out four “grand challenges” for the country to tackle. These were:

  • complications associated with future mobility modes such as autonomous vehicles
  • the need to push Britain to the forefront of research into artificial intelligence development
  • making the UK a leader in clean growth
  • problems posed by an ageing population.

Drawing together new announcements and those made in the Budget a week earlier, the Industrial Strategy set out a roadmap to prosperity (see box).

But there are barriers: the UK’s productivity is flatlining. The budget contained a sober surprise in the news that the Office for Budget Responsibility had downgraded Britain’s growth forecasts for each year until 2022.

Despite this, Mott MacDonald major projects portfolio director Chris Dulake believes the Industrial Strategy has the right proposals to address the problem, particularly in the low-productivity construction industry.

“My personal view? I think it’s a rather good document,” he says, adding that its proposals would boost efficiency in the industry – particularly those embedded in the construction sector deal, announced at the same time.



Lucas: Look to creative industries

Agreed between the government and the Construction Leadership Council on behalf of the construction industry, the deal involves the government pledging £170M to help modernise the construction industry and increase its productivity. An extra £250M will be paid by the industry, although details of how this will be paid have not yet been released.

Embedding digital processes into construction and engineering would help the sector become far more efficient, argues Dulake. During his involvement with the Tideway project, Dulake started looking at the metrics of how teams were performing. By adopting more digital processes,  approval times were halved, six months was shaved off the design programme, and an 80% efficiency rating was achieved in the transfer of data between parties on the project.

For Dulake, being able to measure the benefits of digital is crucial to wider uptake. “When you can start to realise the value of what you are doing, I think you appreciate why you should do more of it. ”

“If you’ve ever doubted the efficiency of digital you should have a bit of faith, because actually the evidence is beginning to collect that this is the best way to go.”

The Budget contained a sober surprise in the news that the Office for Budget Responsibility had downgraded Britain’s growth forecasts for each year until 2022

When digital modelling is used in the design process, mistakes can be made in the safety of the office. This immediately makes the project more efficient as it prevents time being wasted on site. Dulake believes this relatively small change has a big impact.

“That is when you look at the data, one of the major sources of where we get it wrong,” he says.

“We go out and rush to build it before we have things finalised, and actually the lesson from that is, we should design it virtually before we get out there, don’t rush to go and dig a hole in the ground, just make sure we get it all properly done before we go out on site.”

To effectively roll out these digital ways of working, the processes must be standardised. This is where clients can play a big role.

“You [clients] have to be able to define the requirements that you want, sometimes the software that needs to be used, and the functionality you want out of what it is you’re defining, because unless you do that it is chaos,” says Dulake.

Highways England smart motorway programme director Shaun Pidcock agrees that clients have a responsibility to help drive standardisation.

We go out and rush to build it before we have things finalised, and actually, we should design it virtually before we get out there

Chris Dulake, Mott MacDonald

“At the moment I get lots of really good ideas, and there’s a lot of good things happening on a lot of my projects from a lot of different suppliers, but my problem is actually getting a consistency and commonality,” he says, adding this would help steer suppliers away from competing with one another.

Highways England is currently finalising the procurement strategy for its next five-year investment period known as the Road Investment Strategy (RIS2).

For inspiration, Dulake recommends the manufacturing industry. By adopting digital processes, rolling out automation and constructing virtually, before building in reality, the industry has improved its productivity by more than 50% in the last 20 years.

But HS2 Ltd phase 2a engineering change manager Jo Lucas has a more radical role model. Lucas recommends taking a leaf out of the creative industries’ book.

“Sometimes I worry about the fact that we get quite caught up in the concept of the manufacturing industry and what we could do there, because actually they’re still producing an Ikea-like car that you can specify slightly differently each time, whereas we are producing things which are quite different each time,” she says.

An area that’s actually worth looking into instead of the manufacturing world is the art world

Jo Lucas, HS2 Ltd

“I think an area that’s actually worth looking into instead of the manufacturing world is the art world. Each time they create a unique piece of artwork, but actually they’re being incredibly creative about how they do that because they’ve always got incredibly tight budgets which they can work with. So they use digital in an increasingly complex way that actually does reflect the construction industry probably more closely than the manufacturing world.”

Irrespective of where inspiration is drawn from, it is still clear that construction has a long way to go before the whole sector is reaping the rewards of better efficiency by using digital engineering. And younger members of the sector struggle to understand what the problem is.

“The second worst industry in the world for adopting technology is construction, beaten only by hunting and fishing,” says SenSat founder and chief executive James Dean. Formed in 2015, SenSat helps construction and engineering firms, as well as government bodies, to improve their efficiency by using incredibly detailed 3D mapping tools to get better data.

The second worst industry in the world for adopting technology is construction, beaten only by hunting and fishing

James Dean, SenSat

It is part of the UK government’s Pathfinders programme, researching and testing the safe use of drones in cities. SenSat is the only UK drone operator with permission to fly over live highways. Unsurprisingly the company’s mission is “to digitise the world”.

Dean describes how investors sometimes appear surprised at how easy SenSat’s solutions are. They can help with automatic surveys, more accurate measuring and getting live information to construction models. With so many potential benefits and easily available technology, Dean says he is confused about what the blockers are – could it be senior management?

Mott MacDonald chief technical officer Mark Enzer believes poor digital skills among upper management is a major issue.

“I think that maybe the least digitised part of the workforce are the ones who are higher up, and this whole thing of upskilling. The mindset is: if we’ve got to upskill we’re trying to upskill the younger people,” he says.

“Generally that’s not the problem: the problem is the older ones and I think particularly, if you don’t have digitised mindsets in the C-suite, then how on earth can you get it really driven lower down?”

A type of reverse mentoring system could address the problem, argues Dulake. By pairing graduates with senior professionals in their sixties, both could benefit from sharing knowledge of digital processes and of the industry generally.

“I think there’s almost a buddy system which we need to begin to run,” he says.  

Industrial strategy


Boost productivity and get Britain ready for future challenges posed by, for example, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and skills shortages.

  • Raise total research and development (R&D) investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.
  • Invest £725M in new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund programmes
  • Increase National Productivity Investment Fund to £31bn
  • Boost electric vehicle uptake with £400M for charging infrastructure
  • Agree Local Industrial Strategies with councils that play to local strengths

Construction Sector Deal

  •  One of four sector deals announced as part of the Industrial Strategy, agreed by the government and the Construction Leadership Council 
  • Sector deals see the government and industries working together on specific issues to boost productivity and growth
  • Government will put £170M towards modernising the construction industry through research and development
  • The industry will contribute £250M although it is yet to be revealed who exactly will pay and how it will work
  • A new paper setting out the details of the deal will be published shortly


Debate participants

This report is based on a round table discussion that took place in London in November.

The participants were:

Tim Chapman director and leader of the Arup infrastructure London group

John D’Arcy development director for transport, Mott MacDonald

James Dean founder and chief executive, SenSat

Chris Dulake major projects portfolio director, Mott MacDonald

Mark Enzer chief technical officer, Mott MacDonald

David Ferroussat procurement director for infrastructure, Heathrow Airport Ltd

Steve Fox chief executive, Bam Nuttall

Marie Gilmour innovation champion, Nichols Group

Kate Hall design director, HS2 Ltd

Mark Hansford editor, New Civil Engineer

Jo Lucas Phase 2a engineering change manager, HS2 Ltd

Harry Parnel head of digital project delivery, Balfour Beatty Major Projects

Shaun Pidcock smart motorway programme director, Highways England

Malcolm Taylor head of technical information, Crossrail


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