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UK Infrastructure: Digital growth opportunities could stall without greater appetite for risk

A new report by design, engineering and project management consultancy, Atkins, has found that a risk adverse culture within the infrastructure sector and a lack of certainty about which new technologies to invest in could cost the UK millions of pounds in efficiency savings and restrict the ability of its businesses to capitalise on the global digital revolution. (Atkins became a member of the SNC-Lavalin Group on July 3, 2017.)

Atkins surveyed leaders from more than 30 organisations in the infrastructure sector to understand the challenges and opportunities they face as a result of the sector's shift towards digital. Around 60 per cent of respondents said that their organisations were more than two years away from having digital ways of working and service offerings fully embedded, with 23 per cent stating that they were more than five years away.

Although 97 per cent of respondents saw the digitalisation of the industry as a positive development, they highlighted the rapid pace of change in technology and the lack of certainty about which investments would prove to be winners and which would be losers as significant barriers to adoption. The high level of risk that comes with trying something new, rather than sticking to tried and tested solutions, was also cited as a key factor in decisions about using innovation to boost the UK's infrastructure.

Surprisingly, only 16 per cent of the organisations questioned felt that there was a large skills gap in relation to new technologies which could have been a major barrier to adoption, although there were also some words of caution not to allow two distinct groups to form the digitally connected new generation and the rest.

Nick Roberts, chief executive officer for Atkins' UK & Europe business, said: "The message from the government is clear - disrupt or be disrupted. The research shows that the appetite to embrace the opportunities that digital offers is strong, but we need to find a way to overcome our aversion to risk. If we can't fix this and meet the aspirations set out in the government's Digital Strategy and the Industrial Strategy, then delivering world-class, modern infrastructure for less cost will not be achieved and Britain will be left behind.

"We need better collaboration between the public and private sectors, the infrastructure experts and the technology experts, the funders, the designers and engineers, and the end users. We must ensure the right people are having the right conversations and making informed decisions so we can reduce risk as far as possible. By understanding and addressing business transformation, the pace of change, people, skills, the use of big data, security and resilience, we believe organisations can embrace the opportunities the fourth industrial revolution offers and grow successfully alongside it."

When asked which technologies would be the most disruptive, 29 per cent of survey respondents pointed to big data and analytics, 25 per cent highlighted artificial intelligence, and 13 per cent said the Internet of Things. The research also found that cyber security is a major concern for infrastructure companies. As systems become more open and interconnected across multiple platforms and mediums to realise the benefits of digital adoption, they become more vulnerable to hackers.

A number of positive opportunities were also flagged by the contributors. At present only 13 per cent of companies are using big data and analytics despite it being one of the most disruptive and beneficial developments. Other technologies including mobile computing, 3D and 4D modelling, augmented reality and biometrics all have strong potential but are used by less than a third of companies.

The research included respondents from a wide range of industries including aerospace, architecture, construction, defence, energy, government, oil & gas, property development, telecoms, transportation (including rail and highways) and water. Wider responses were also sought from academia, infrastructure and technology industry groups, and Atkins' technology partners.The full report can be downloaded here



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