The next chapter? Digital and big data, infrastructure that is out of this world

Malcolm Bairstow, EY

The post Election return of market confidence makes it the perfect time to focus on fixing some of the infrastructure sector's fragilities, says Malcolm Bairstow.

Time to boldly go…..
With the recent political uncertainties behind us (at least until the country is asked to opine on the question of Europe) and business confidence on the rise, now is the perfect opportunity to fix some of the fragilities inherent in the infrastructure sector.

Without change, there is a risk that businesses may be prevented from grasping the enormous opportunities that come with the new digital era, enabling the international competition to steal a march on UK based firms.

High five?
The economist E F Schumacher asserted that ‘Small is Beautiful’ and the majority of our infrastructure supply chain operates comfortably in a stable local market. However, some consider that the inevitable consolidation of the UK’s construction sector will leave no more than a handful of the country’s major players sitting comfortably when the music stops.

Nobody is suggesting that there shouldn't be an ecosystem of many and varied SME's to provide the inspiration and entrepreneurialism that is the equivalent of the silicon roundabout of the tech sector.

However equally it is naive to believe that any sub-scale business can afford to make the required investments in skills, training, technology and business development to match those global players who see the UK market as ‘fair game’.

One voice
One encouraging aspect of the recent closely fought election was the high degree of importance given to infrastructure by the politicians, the press and the public. Infrastructure was seen as a positive economic driver and as a major influence on the quality of life of both dense urban populations and remote rural inhabitants alike.

However, in stark contrast to this halo effect, our disaggregated and dispersed trade bodies, professional institutions and lobby groups seem to be light years behind other industries such as automotive and aerospace. The infrastructure sector is still struggling to speak with one voice and to influence longer term policy decisions.

A case for investment
Whilst the arrival of Business Information Modelling (BIM) has only proceeded at a pace that the lawyers would allow (to prevent the biggest case of involuntary joint and several liability in history) the impact has already been transformational.

The next chapter is digital and big data. This truly offers the industry the opportunity to use data to massively simplify processes and to embed digital technology to create infrastructure that is out of this world.

But in the absence of businesses with the sufficient scale to invest and without a coordinated voice for the infrastructure sector, could the ability to exploit these opportunities potentially be a stretch too far?


Malcolm Bairstow is senior partner at EY