Comment: could Covid-19 catalyse a true digital revolution?

3 min read

Managing and recovering from the coronavirus crisis could be the catalyst for a long-term digitally driven partnership between academia, industry and government. Ian Risk, CTO of the Centre for Modelling & Simulation (CFMS), outlines the importance of innovation and joined up thinking now and in the future.

In recent weeks we have experienced seismic changes within our working and home lives,  changes which it’s hard to imagine could have be realised in such a short time. The phrase ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ has never been more true – but, to some degree it is not invention that has occurred, it is innovation.

Everyone from the top levels of government, industry and education have ‘gone digital’ overnight, at a scale many thought would not be possible

Innovation in how the industrial, technology and engineering communities have come together to produce much needed ventilators for the NHS. But also invention with, for example, University College London engineers and clinicians working with the Mercedes Formula One team to develop a breathing aid to help Covid-19 patients.

Digital transformation has been at the heart of this change. Everyone from the top levels of government, industry and education have ‘gone digital’ overnight, at a scale many thought would not be possible. The strange times we find ourselves in are demonstrating the maturity of these technologies and, hopefully, will pave the way for more widespread adoption across industry. This may be the catalyst for change as the old working paradigms are cast aside through commercial necessity.

UCL's CPAP device, developed in less than a week with the help of Mercedes F1, is a great example of engineers' appetite to collaborate. Image credit: James Tye / UCL

In discussions with industry, there is a real appetite to work together, to push forward digital technology development and implementation as a collective. But all too often this collaborative effort is hampered by rules and regulations. For many large OEMs there is a real dichotomy in the desire to be more agile and adaptive whilst they become heavily constrained by large scale information technology solutions in an effort to reduce risk.

The need for safety and security remains paramount in the face of cybercrime. However, if we are to bring about change and realise the potential of digitalisation at an industrial scale, there is a need to be far more open. Building walls of any form, physical or virtual, hampers the exchange of data, information and knowledge. These are the building blocks of the digital world and it is the speed at which we can convert that knowledge into product that matters. If we are to achieve change, trust must be established not only in the data itself (especially if critical decisions are based upon it) but also that those using the data are doing so for the right reasons. Scandals such as Cambridge Analytica have done much to reduce our confidence in such things. Ultimately, this brings about the need for behavioural change within industry and policy makers. It is a cultural shift of epic proportions, but if we are to realise the potential of the digital era, it must happen.

Whilst the UK Government has been a true advocate of the move to digital technology and provided funding for initiatives such as Made Smarter to help bring about that change, the impact is hampered by speed of implementation and imposed operational constraints. Programmes often take months of consultation, evaluation and contract preparation before collaborations can be initiated, whilst the digital community itself does not stand still. The skills required to bring about such change are in short supply and we must empower them. Most exist in academia, research organisations and the start up community who are far less constrained by large scale infrastructure investment and yet limitations on the levels of participation in funded collaborations are generally imposed. This creates silos of activity, , in academia, for example, and restricts exchange between those that are moving at pace, reducing the impact they can have on industry and the effectiveness of the whole ecosystem.

To build a new, sustainable world we will need science and engineering more than ever, with a workforce that is fit for the digital era

To achieve the sought after innovation, you need invention, education and implementation. Unfortunately these elements are all managed by different government departments with different budgets that rarely align to achieve a collective goal. In the new world that will emerge from the current crisis, we need to ensure that joined up thinking and action exists within all stakeholders. Without this the opportunity to rebuild engineering and our economy, runs the risk of being lost in bureaucracy.

Recent events have highlighted the fragility of our modern world, powerful nations being moved to the brink of recession in the blink of an eye. To build a new, sustainable world we will need science and engineering more than ever, with a workforce that is fit for the digital era. As has been said so often in dealing with the current challenge, we are only going to achieve this together – just as we have seen with the drive to provide the NHS with more ventilators –  in a true, agile partnership between academia, industry and government.

Ian Risk is Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at the not for profit digital engineering specialist CFMS (Centre for modelling and simulation)