The Digital and the Physical
One of the abiding lessons of the coronavirus pandemic has been the need for a blend of digital and physical infrastructure, allowing us to access work and leisure in a fluid, flexible, and multidimensional way.
Both physical and digital infrastructure needs to be sufficient to match moments of peak demand, with people in the Arc having the assurance that, just as the train, busway or autonomous shuttle will be running reliably enough to get them to work on time, superfast broadband and 5G will also be able to connect them seamlessly from wherever they may choose to work remotely. Removing the element of doubt from the commute, or the telecommute, will be a key part of how we harness the positive changes in the nature of work which have followed from the pandemic. Here the public sector can use its infrastructure and strategic planning ability to support the other points of the triple helix, with a government report estimating that £75 billion of additional GDP has been generated through the democratisation of 4G network between 2010 and 2020.
We have seen a sea-change in opinion and attitudes towards innovative and efficient modes of work, which can also contribute to improved wellbeing and satisfaction. The TUC estimates that the average commuter now spends nine days a year commuting using inefficient transport infrastructure – and just as workplaces have increasingly adapted to flexible modes of working, we have to ensure investment in connective capital has equal flexibility in combining physical with digital infrastructure. We cannot continue to view digital and physical infrastructure as separate issues or even two sides of the same coin, but rather fundamentally and inseparably linked.
Meeting the digital needs of individuals and businesses in the future will require substantial growth in digital infrastructure, especially in light of the fact that mobile data traffic has grown 4,000-fold over the past 10 years. To date, 94% of homes and businesses across the Arc have access to superfast broadband via fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC), but data demand is still surging. A UK-specific forecast published by the UK Spectrum Policy Forum suggested that overall demand for data usage will rise 22-fold between 2015 and 2030. Far from a bold plan for the future, combined digital and physical infrastructure will be necessary just to meet current projected demand, let alone account for the kind of growth planned as part of the government’s Build Back Better strategy.
If we are to adequately support the growth of regions like the Arc as part of the government’s levelling up agenda, serious efforts will have to be made to ensure that the momentum created by the wave of digitalisation after the pandemic is backed up with the necessary underlying digital and physical infrastructure to support it. After decades of slow acceleration, we have seen a rapid and successful take-off for homeworking, virtual meetings and other digitally-enabled efficiencies. Further investment and integration of digital and physical infrastructure needs to take place so that this can continue to gain speed, supercharging growth and ensuring the Arc stays at the forefront of international economic and innovation competitiveness.
Through recent advances in technology, including many innovations produced within the Arc, we stand on the cusp of radical change in the field of digital connective capital. 5G is itself expected to deliver speeds up to 100 times faster than typical 4G technology – and as well as making communication faster, 5G allows us to achieve the most out of the potential for smart cities, functional public technology and even, through innovative technology developed in the Arc, help facilitate the burgeoning field of telemedicine. Through investment in digital connective capital, we can observe spillovers into improved social capital, such as through thorough GP examinations that can take place virtually anywhere and facilitated by ultrafast communications. The Future Communications Challenge Group (FCCG), advising the Government on the subject of 5G connectivity, has suggested that not acting to ensure UK leadership in 5G would result in losing an opportunity to create £173bn of incremental GDP over the decade from 2020 to 2030. Investment in infrastructure is clearly vital if the UK is to remain competitive, and just as HS2 or Crossrail might shave hours off a commute and free up time for businesses and individuals, universal connectivity will make everyday interactions across sectors quicker, more efficient, and more equitable for those who will be able to access a wider range of services. We can alleviate pressure on the physical transport system by increasing its speed and capacity, but we can also do so by reducing the necessity of physical presence. By ensuring that a business meeting can happen virtually, that a consultation with a pharmacist can be done via an ultrafast online service, that a university seminar can be a hybrid of virtual and physical, we reduce the load on physical infrastructure through improvements in the reliability and speed of the digital space. 5G and other innovative solutions will be at the forefront of this mixed infrastructure policy, reflected our new flexibility of life and work with an equally flexible approach to connective capital investment.
In March 2021, the government’s Project Speed taskforce identified the Oxford-Cambridge Arc as one of a number of high-profile ‘pathfinder projects’, underlining its importance as a region with a regionally-focussed approach to supercharging growth in the UK economy. The Arc is the source of much of the UK’s innovation in the digital space, and stands not only to contribute in an incredibly concentrated way to further development in technological solutions to future problems, but to benefit from increased consideration of digital infrastructure as just as vitally important as the physical. When conceptualising the Arc, there has been an evident sea change from National Infrastructure Commission’s emphasis purely on an expressway and physical infrastructure, to an increased awareness of digital connectivity in a post-pandemic climate.
Beyond connective capital alone, considering digital and physical infrastructure as fundamentally interlinked can help the investment in all aspects of the ‘capital’ concept which underpins this Manifesto’s vision for the future of the Arc.
Sensor technology and digital replicas of buildings like those used by Boeing and Tesla can collect data on real-time energy usage and automatically adjust to optimise performance, allowing us to preserve and conserve natural capital. By digitally mapping the Arc’s natural capital infrastructure, we could better illustrate visually how new development patterns would affect natural capital assets and the associated costs and benefits. Just as digital and physical infrastructure works seamlessly together through the smart city concept, natural capital can be grown by the combination of physical and digital infrastructure working to relay the environmental sustainability data of the built environment across the Arc.
Universities across the Arc have likewise used the pandemic as a catalyst for developing hybrid models of working and research, in which students across subjects might watch pre-recorded lectures online, attend blended in-person and digital seminars and supervisions, and solely in-person practical and laboratory sessions, opening up the knowledge capital of the Arc to more efficient working practices, preparing students to enter a hybridised working environment, and making research and development more accessible for those with limited mobility.
All of this relies on the momentum created by the disruption of the pandemic to change long-seated patterns of work to more efficient and effective models, and rests entirely on the necessary digital and physical infrastructure being in place. The teaching provided by universities, colleges and schools builds the human and knowledge capital of the region, and is supported by every pupil that can continue to learn during a pandemic, by every student that can access a broader range of academic material, by every apprentice that can learn skills virtually from their mobile phone.
Efforts have already been made across the Arc to ensure that digital connective capital is considered hand-in-hand with the built environment: in Milton Keynes, full fibre connections are now a policy requirement for all new developments, just as Smart Cambridge’s Intelligent City Platform (ICP) harnesses sensors to predict travel times and suggest the most sustainable routes, a perfect example of the blend of digital and physical. This proactive stance towards connectivity should be mirrored in the policies taken forward in other local planning authorities. At the same moment as a radical shake-up in the way we consider our relationship with the physical and the digital world after the pandemic, developments like 5G are on track to redefine how we connect with one another. We need to seize this moment to break down barriers between the concepts of physical and digital infrastructure, recognising this blended approach is at the heart of the flexible way we now live our lives.