Green shoots of recovery

Mike Pettinella, EMEA Director at Autodesk, highlights the important role digital technologies will play in supporting the Spring Budget's infrastructure investment

In early March, the UK Government unveiled their Spring Budget with an investment-led recovery plan. The Budget sets out key areas of focus for infrastructure and puts the construction industry on a strong footing to keep up the pace of digital transformation. Whilst much of this change has been exacerbated by the impact of Covid-19, it's an exciting time of modernisation for the industry and it's clear the government sees technology as a game-changer in achieving their infrastructure ambitions.

The budget outlines plenty of positive steps that will change how the construction industry can work for years to come. These include the potential modern methods of construction can offer in fuelling growth across the sector, as well as the important role technology plays in enhancing more sustainable ways of working.

2020 showed us the transformative potential that modern methods of construction can offer the industry, and the UK government recognises this too. Throughout the disruptive year that was 2020, the industry showed incredible resilience in adapting to new ways of working, with modern methods of construction playing a pivotal role in this. Prefabrication helped to deliver NHS Nightingale field hospitals across the country at pace, and off-site manufacturing is helping improve safety performance by reducing the numbers of workers needed on a construction site.

One exciting announcement for the construction industry in the Spring Budget is the creation of a modern methods of construction taskforce to stimulate housebuilding - an initiative backed with £10m of government funding. The new taskforce, which will be established by the housing ministry, will use 'seed funding' to accelerate the delivery of modern methods of construction homes across the UK.

Bringing together leading experts in this field from across the industry and government will help to stimulate closer partnerships between these groups and local authorities to fully realise the benefits of a taskforce like this.

Additional investment through the Leeds-based 'Infrastructure bank' means more businesses can invest in technologies and tools to ensure UK infrastructure projects are delivered more efficiently. With £12bn of equity and debt capital dedicated to financing both private sector and local authority projects across the UK, the bank's northern location firmly cements the government's ambitions to levelling up the country.

Basing the new bank in Leeds sends a strong signal to the government's devolution agenda and reinforces that moving away from London-centric decision-making is still a key priority. Existing major infrastructure projects aimed to improve connectivity across our UK cities means more opportunities and access to work, education and prosperity will open up for future generations.

The Spring Budget also confirmed three new investment programmes targeted at supporting the government's ambitions to level up the UK economy. These initiatives focus on delivering funding via local authorities, but importantly the government set out that these projects must be aligned to supporting and achieving the UK's net-zero goals. For example, a project must be rooted in low or zero carbon best practice and support innovative, cleaner technologies or support the growth of green skills. For the construction industry, investing in and recognising the value that technology can play in achieving this from the outset will be important in delivering these projects successfully.

Working collaboratively across supply chains to maximise the benefits that technology can bring to any infrastructure project is an important factor any major project should consider from project start up. Using technologies like BIM to better plan, design and build as well as capture project data helps to deliver more predictable project outcomes. Mandating working in this way on levelling up projects can not only support faster delivery but also improve quality - reducing the need for rework later down the line.

The new 'Infrastructure Bank' will offer a range of tools for private and public companies to invest in infrastructure projects and has been heralded as the driving force in the 'green building revolution'. For these infrastructure projects, technology can play a pivotal role in delivering both value for money and increasing productivity, but it is also a key enabler to delivering, maintaining and managing more sustainable assets.

Interestingly, the Chancellor also confirmed in the Spring Budget that the Infrastructure Bank will establish an advisory function to help with the delivery of projects. A single source of truth on these infrastructure projects in the form of a common data environment will not only benefit initial project delivery, but will allow asset owners to better manage the data they capture in project delivery to inform ongoing maintenance and eventual decommissioning.

The construction industry is uniquely placed in being one of the UK's biggest contributors to carbon emissions but also one of the industries that is receiving investment for growth. All construction players whether they are professionals, collaborators or firms have the responsibility to deliver change in the way we measure, monitor and reduce our collective carbon footprint.

As a world leader in off shore wind technologies, the new projects announced at Humberside and Teesside in the UK shows that the government are committed to advancing this role whilst decarbonising energy on our electricity grid. Continual investment in other green industries as well as from the new Infrastructure Bank means that sustainability continues to be top of the construction agenda.

A recent Autodesk report, "Digital Sustainability: The Path to Net Zero for Design & Manufacturing and Architecture, Engineering & Construction (AEC) industries", offers an industry wide perspective on sustainability across the UK, Ireland and Northern Europe. The research highlighted how a lack of resources, skills and technology can impair companies progress towards a more sustainable future. Investing in better workflows, technology and software that improves sustainability outcomes will be key to making progress in this area.

Creating skills and job opportunities for the 1.75 million people out of work in the UK is no mean feat, but the construction industry has a lot to offer. The workforce and skills needed to drive forward infrastructure projects have been falling behind, and with the rising role digital is playing in the industry comes the need to diversify the skills of the current workforce.

The chancellor announced doubling the incentive for businesses to hire apprentices to £3,000 to encourage more construction companies to consider increasing investment in younger and future talent. This can be particularly useful when looking to upskill the current workforce - through reverse mentorship opportunities the digitally-native younger recruits can help with driving forward digital skills whilst existing and more experienced employees can impart key industry knowledge and insight in return.

For the industry, the rise of digital technologies in day-to-day working practices means that skillsets are evolving on an ongoing basis. For professionals and future job seekers, this means the jobs of tomorrow may not exist today. It's important that firms and educators focus their outreach on the power that digital can offer - new roles that will emerge over time that could potentially offer new and exciting opportunities for future talent.

New roles centered on the digital evolution will emerge and as an industry it's vitally important we're responding to this. Outreach in schools and partnerships with higher education institutions can support this, raising awareness of the opportunities available by studying science, technology, engineering and mathematic (STEM) courses as well as outreach to current professionals or those who may have left the industry. We often see many women leaving the sector as a result of working conditions and digital roles can offer the flexibility that many women state they need in a job.

The infrastructure investments in the Spring Budget are an exciting opportunity for the construction industry in the UK to address many of the issues that has plagued our sector for years. Forging stronger relationships between the public and private sector as well as doubling down on innovative methods of construction to increase productivity and improve safety is an exciting and much needed step forward.