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Head of CSIC highlights importance of digital technologies, off-site manufacturing and whole-life performance in House of Lords debate about the Industrial Strategy

last modified Jan 10, 2018 10:04 AM
The Government’s Industrial Strategy: Building a Britain Fit for the Future White Paper, setting out long-term plans to boost the productivity of the UK, was debated in the House of Lords on 8 January.

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Image courtesy of Parliamentlive.tv

The motion to take note was opened by the Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Minister Lord Henley and attended by a number of distinguished speakers, including Professor Lord Mair, president of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), chairman of the Department for Transport’s Science Advisory Council and Head of CSIC.

Lord Mair welcomed the White Paper, approving its emphasis on collaboration between government, business, science and technology, but observed: “The test is whether it has the capacity to make a powerful difference.”

Lord Mair referred to an event, hosted by the ICE, which marked the launch of three new infrastructure papers released by the Treasury’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority and the Department for Transport, soon after the White Paper was published in November 2017. The reports: Transforming Infrastructure Performance; Transport Infrastructure Efficiency Strategy; and an update to the National Infrastructure and Construction Pipeline combine to form the Government’s future agenda for infrastructure delivery. Lord Mair said: “We now have four substantive documents from three government departments. All of these recognise the urgent need to improve the performance of our infrastructure to help boost the productivity of the industry and deliver better outcomes for society.”

Citing the White Paper’s focus on the broader societal outcomes from infrastructure investment and their influence on decision making, Lord Mair acknowledged this would help to address “the more chronic problems of regional imbalances, low wage growth and weakness in skills”. Welcoming the confirmed increase in size of the National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) that he believes will help to address these problems, Lord Mair urged: “This must be done in a transparent and considered way to maximise the benefits from the investment. Infrastructure covers eight government departments and 26 Ministers. It is a sector that for every £1 billion spent increases overall economic activity by around £2.8 billion. It is therefore of the utmost importance for the Government to work across all their departments and the industry to ensure that the NPIF is spent on projects that will maximise this return.”

Praising the Construction Leadership Council’s efforts to ensure that the construction sector deal was in the first round of deals to be announced in the White Paper, Lord Mair focussed on the potential to make a powerful difference to the infrastructure sector and to the UK’s economy and productivity.

He named three key strategic themes underpinning the sector deal that will potentially transform the construction industry: digital; manufacturing; and whole-life performance.

Digital will deliver better, more certain outcomes using ​technologies, particularly building information modelling, but the timely opportunities presented by the current digital revolution must, said Lord Mair, “be fully exploited, including artificial intelligence and machine learning”.

Improving productivity, quality and safety by increasing the use of off-site manufacturing has the potential to “rebalance jobs more equitably throughout the country, improve value for money from public investment and minimise disruption to local communities during the construction process”.

Illustrating his point, Lord Mair compared two stations being built for Crossrail: “At Tottenham Court Road, the platforms were built using conventional in-situ concrete technology—casting concrete on site—whereas at Liverpool Street station the platforms were built using off-site manufacture, the key concrete components being cast in a factory in the Midlands, brought to London and assembled on site. This off-site manufacture resulted in hugely increased productivity. The Government has made off-site manufacture for construction an immediate priority as the delivery mechanism of choice for five government departments. This is to be welcomed.”

The third strategic theme of the construction-sector deal is whole-life performance, which uses smart technologies, including sensors and data analytics, to secure value from both new and existing infrastructure. Lord Mair explained that ‘smart infrastructure’ will lead to improved and more economic designs, and will revolutionise asset management: “Data generated by sensors will enable continuous monitoring of an infrastructure asset throughout its life, providing information for more rational maintenance and repair strategies. We will be able to understand exactly how a building, tunnel, bridge or railway line is performing during construction and throughout its lifetime. This will substantially reduce infrastructure operating costs. Importantly, it will also enable much more rational prioritisation of the nation’s infrastructure requirements.”

He made reference to the new Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) at the University of Cambridge that will “develop and commercialise the digital technologies behind the smart systems at the heart of tomorrow’s homes, as well as new and innovative construction techniques. This should mean housing, schools and hospitals that are not only quicker and cheaper to build but cost less to run and are more energy efficient”.

Concluding his contribution to the debate, Lord Mair supported the observations made by Lord Mandelson and Lord Heseltine, that the Industrial Strategy White Paper is not one stand-alone document from one stand-alone government department, rather a working and dynamic document. Lord Mair said: “It should catalyse continuous collaboration between all relevant government departments, industry and trade bodies. This includes working with the National Infrastructure Commission to ensure that its national infrastructure assessment is incorporated in the future development of the White Paper, together with the Institution of Civil Engineers’ National Needs Assessment.”

A world-class economy needs world-class infrastructure and, he said, “achieving this goal needs the drive, vision and expertise as envisioned in the construction sector deal”. Lord Mair highlighted 2018 as the Year of Engineering and the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Institution of Civil Engineers, the oldest professional engineering body in the world: “The engineers of the past knew how to build and operate effective infrastructure for society. We must exploit innovative, modern technology and continue this great tradition.”

Read the full Industrial Strategy debate here.

Read the full white paper Industrial Strategy:Building a Britain Fit for the Future (27 November 2017) here.

Watch the debate on Parliamentlive.tv here.