March 31, 2016
Last week, the UK Government passed the latest bill to pave the way for the creation of HS2, the high speed rail line that will initially connect London with Birmingham and later cities like Sheffield, Manchester and Leeds. Most of the criticisms of the line are focussed on its financial and environmental costs, impact on the wider rail network and (frankly poor) design. We can grant the project’s proponents all of their arguments countering those points and still we are left with a perhaps more fundamental problem. We are now committed to creating a train that will monopolise the resources available to public transport for the next twenty years and exist for more than a hundred, but without considering the world in which it will arrive. I’d go further and suggest that even as its tracks are laid, the world around it will already have left it behind, leaving it as an impressive but doomed testament to hubris, old tech and failure of imagination.
The reasons for this failure to anticipate a vastly different world emerging over the next two decades are difficult to fathom because we only have to look back twenty years to see how technology will transform almost every aspect of our lives, including the way we work, interact, travel, buy and consume. There are good reasons to assume that what will happen over the next twenty years will make the changes wrought by the Internet seem modest. The issue of this Fourth Industrial Revolution and what it will mean for the world of work is the subject of a recommended new podcast from The Spectator. This will be the world of automation, driverless vehicles, coworking and the creation of game changing new technology such as this from Microsoft.
This is not just a problem for HS2. The Government seems to be largely unaware of or uninterested in what is happening beyond its bubble. The newly formed Infrastructure and Projects Authority has just published its construction strategy paper for the period up to 2020. By definition the department is responsible for planning and creating the UK’s infrastructure for decades beyond that time and yet the document only uses the word technology three times and, even then, only with regard to the application of BIM as a way of improving the construction process.
Perhaps more worryingly, the very short section at the end of the document on whole life approaches only deals with the issue of sustainability. It makes no mention of creating the physical infrastructure capable of dealing with a rapidly changing world. This is odd given that the Government itself is using technology to reduce its own use of physical space, but perhaps we should be beyond expecting joined-up thinking.
This is not to say that in future people won’t work together or travel to meet each other. Just that the ways they do so will be vastly different. So, what is more worrying is that the Government’s commitment to invest in technological infrastructure is woefully inadequate compared to its focus on physical infrastructure. That is why, perhaps, it is now still commonplace to see politicians creating photo opps for themselves striding around muddy sites in hi-vis vests and hard hats, less so donning a black t-shirt and laptop bag to mooch around a datacentre. Maybe it’s more media friendly and maybe they just don’t get it.
Their failures with regard to technological infrastructure are evident. In March it became apparent that the Government had quietly dropped a major ‘commitment’ to eradicate the UK’s many mobile not-spots. A more recent report from Ofcom found that those in rural areas suffer particularly badly from poor technological infrastructure, which not only affects existing businesses in those areas but also those businesses who want to flee cities for a better life and lower property costs.
Meanwhile, the Government continues to skirt the issue and starve the solutions of time and money. In a recent submission to Parliament, BT’s chief exec Gavin Patterson said that if the company were asked to provide the fibre rich infrastructure the country is crying out for as part of the Government’s own universal service obligation (USO) it would cost up to £2bn which the company could not justify as a private business although it could perhaps do it on the cheap with 4G and satellite broadband.
It shouldn’t need pointing out that £2 bn is roughly the tea and biscuits budget for HS2 yet is a major sticking point for something that has a much higher return on investment and probably will do more to reshape the UK’s economy. So, while the Government dithers on these basic issues, it steams ahead with tens of billions of pounds of investment in projects that may be obsolete while spades are still in the ground. Its focus remains on the First rather than the Fourth Industrial revolution.