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      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.

      27 Feb 2022 Belinda Fawcett, Director of Property and Estates, General Counsel - Cornerstone
      High quality infrastructure is crucial for economic growth, boosting productivity and competitiveness… Digital connectivity is unlocking new and previously unimaginable ways of working, and is now essential to facilitate public services, including healthcare and education.
      – HM Treasury Build Back Better Report 2021

      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. 

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      COVID-19 has forced businesses to rethink their operations, how they engage with staff and their use of technology. BeTheBusiness estimate that three years’ worth of digital transformation took place in three months when the required public health measures began in March 2020.
      – HM Treasury Build Back Better Report 2021

      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.

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