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We need to keep up with the digital age

Digital connectivity

The government has pledged £1 billion to improve the UK's digital infrastructure. But this may not be enough to overcome the nation's digital lag, says Jo Davis

In 2015, only 1.5 per cent of the UK’s major infrastructure project spending was on digital infrastructure. The announcement of an additional £1 billion for digital, alongside the £2.3 billion Housing Infrastructure Fund in the 2016 Autumn Statement showed a commitment from government to improve both these aspects of the UK’s ageing and inefficient provision. But is it enough, and how does it translate to delivery? 

The housing white paper promises to consult on a requirement that digital infrastructure is considered during the planning process. Too little, too late? It is important for the UK to remain globally competitive and our digital infrastructure needs to catch up. A firm commitment from government is required to ensure that digital infrastructure remains at the fore. 

Good infrastructure – social, green or highways – is critical for the economy. But the tech age is changing the world fast and our strategies struggle to keep up. As planners, we tend to focus on and plan at a spatial level – the green spaces, the primary school, the community centre. 

We are living in a virtual world; what about the digital infrastructure that supports daily life? It can often be faster to send a file via a USB on a bicycle across London than to transmit it via an email. 

“It can often be faster to send a file via a USB on a bicycle across London than to transmit it via an email”

Our digital infrastructure is congested and the danger is that as something less tangible, it is harder to understand and factor into decision-making. There is not enough focus on how to deliver improved digital connectivity in and outside of London. 

In the West of England, testing ways to digitalise a city has been taken up by the Bristol is Open project, a collaboration between the University of Bristol, Bristol City Council and other partners and supporters such as Nokia, InterDigital and NEC. 

The project uses Bristol’s own digital infrastructure: fibre in the ground (using some of the old telecoms network); sensors on lampposts; and a mile of experimental wireless connectivity along the Harbourside (the city’s bustling hub), to create an ‘open programmable city’. This not only provides opportunities to change the way people interact with the city and enhance connectivity, but also attracts people to live and work in the burgeoning high-tech clusters in the region.

Nevertheless, travel a few miles from the city centre and the ability to connect is much more uncertain. 

Government funding and policy can only go so far in delivering digital connectivity. As an industry, we need collaboration and action to ensure that digital infrastructure is inherent in the design, implementation and creation of new places.

Jo Davis is senior director of planning, development and regeneration at real estate adviser GVA

Image | Shutterstock


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