Post-Covid recovery needs to be digital

Infrastructure leaders predicted a digitally driven post-Covid recovery when they discussed key issues at a business roundtable hosted by Atkins and Infrastructure Intelligence, reports Rob O’Connor.

Infrastructure leaders are predicting a digitally driven post-Covid recovery and a return to a pre-crisis outlook within 18 months, according to a confident new report by Atkins. The report, Infrastructure Insights: COVID Impact and Recovery, was the basis for a compelling online roundtable on 21 October entitled “How can construction embrace digital innovation to accelerate the UK’s post-Covid recovery?”

The roundtable saw leading industry figures discuss the pace of digital transformation and highlight lessons the sector could learn from other industries. There was general agreement that the sector will not emerge from the pandemic crisis in the same form and it was also clear that senior decision makers want to see digital innovations from the design, engineering and consultancy sector to help support their organisations.  

Richard Robinson, Atkins UK CEO, outlined how the company was accelerating its future digital programme in an industry that has so far been traditionally resistant to change – even to the point where the industry was even lagging behind industries such as hunting and fishing in terms of digitisation.  

“Construction is the least digitised of any sector and this is the root cause of poor productivity,” said Robinson. “Covid has shown that attitudes and behaviours can change quickly. That presents a big opportunity, but also a big leap for digital to fill that space,” he said.

Dr Beth Morgan, founding partner at the consultancy Digital Outlook, said that the changing face of future industry leadership would help see a huge digital transformation take place in the sector. Morgan, who also lectures on digital issues at UCL, described her recent experience of teaching an international cohort of digital engineering management students.

“The comment that stood out was they couldn’t believe we’re not doing this yet,” she said. “They just couldn’t believe how slow we’re being in taking up these very rudimentary technologies and I think the change we’re going to see as that generation moves into leadership positions is extraordinary. I think it’s going to accelerate things enormously,” Morgan said.

Anna Heaton, infrastructure and transport partner at the legal firm Addleshaw Goddard, highlighted how digital transformation and client expectations on sustainability are combining to drive changing contracting models focussed on innovation and long-term value rather than lowest fixed price. “If we can push people towards achieving better safety standards, more efficient building, getting things done quicker and decreasing unexpected costs that can come out of the planning period – digital technology is a way to do all of that, and that comes from clients demanding it from the contractors,” said Heaton.

Alexandra Bolton, executive director at the Centre for Digital Build Britain, stressed the importance of learning the lessons of positive digital transformations in other industries. She said: “Automotive, aviation and manufacturing have done fantastic things for at least ten or 20 years and we, as a construction and wider built environment industry, need to work out what they have done really well, use that, and work out where we can do things even better.” 

Steven Broomhead, Warrington Borough Council CEO, said that large public sector organisations and the government itself had to embrace digital transformation and work differently in the future. “All the public sectors have to join the paradigm shift in terms of workplace activity and communications – they have to think about doing their job differently,” said Broomhead. “Councils are enablers of construction and I was absolutely determined that Covid would not be an excuse for delaying doing business. We’ve embraced the digital platform. Digital is a game changer – I can’t see us going back to the way we were before,” he said.

Jason Prior, partner and co-founder of Prior + Partners made the point that clients were playing a key role in dragging people along at pace with digital transformation. “Covid means all things are now possible compared to previous work models,” Prior claimed. “And when we start to look at clients, there’s a sense that the better resourced ones are on a similar journey - and as more and more clients change to digital platforms they bring more and more people with them,” he said.

"Construction is the least digitised of any sector but Covid has shown that attitudes and behaviours can change quickly. That presents a big opportunity, but also a big leap for digital to fill that space."
Richard Robinson, UK CEO, Atkins

Tim Bowen, managing director of strategic development at Keltbray, said that productivity was still a vital issue and urged the industry to embrace digital transformation to keep pace with change. “Clients are increasingly digitising their assets – to remain relevant we need to digitalise our end-to-end offering, sooner rather than later,” he said.

Summing up the discussion, Atkins CEO Richard Robinson looked ahead and highlighted the imagination of today’s generation of ten-year-olds in embracing digital change. “Today’s younger generation are super-interested in building and making things,” he said. “They go into their virtual worlds and build whatever they want. They visualise and build things and are just totally unconstrained. I was just reflecting what would they think if they came into our industry now? I think they’d be just really overwhelmed by the constraints.

“The findings set out in our report and discussed at this roundtable represent a compelling and powerful take on the sector and its path forward. While it’s clear we need a finalised National Infrastructure Strategy to give us more clarity and confidence, there’s an expectation for the private sector to step up the use of technology and data to accelerate the recovery by building back smarter as well as better,” Robinson said.

Roundtable moderator and Infrastructure Intelligence editor Andy Walker said: “The wide-ranging discussion highlighted a number of vital points that the infrastructure industry needs to take on board. One of the key things that stood out for me was the importance of raising everyone’s sights to build a better world – and digital transformation has to be central to that.”

Click here to download the Atkins report, Infrastructure Insights: COVID Impact and Recovery.

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email