Expert Insight

Ask the panel: digital or physical infrastructure – which will have the greater impact in the North West?

Ask the panel: digital or physical infrastructure – which will have the greater impact in the North West?

The government’s recently announced UK Digital Strategy includes commitment to developing a “world class” digital infrastructure whilst, at the same time, it presses ahead with the £56 billion HS2 and the mammoth Trans-Pennine tunnel. With this in mind, Move Commercial asks a panel of North West experts:

Q: What will have the greater impact on growth here in the North West? Digital infrastructure or its physical counterpart?

 

Andy Roberts
managing director, Formby Surveys 

The answer to the question depends on the sectors you operate in and whether we are talking about short or long-term benefits.

The development of a world class digital infrastructure would place less emphasis on physical infrastructure as it would enable individuals to work and collaborate with less need to commute and travel, whilst at the same time allowing for productivity whilst travelling.

As it stands, mobile broadband between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds is patchy and in some places unusable, resulting in significant downtime if using public transport.

That said, the road and rail links along this corridor also require significant investment in their own right.

A balance needs to be struck with investment in both areas; however a focus on digital infrastructure would see significant benefits in the shorter term, whilst longer term advantages would be gained from investment in physical infrastructure

 

Kirsty Styles
head of talent and skills, Tech North

Digital and physical infrastructure projects really go hand in hand – people increasingly need to be able to interact with services and work easily online, but they also need to be able to get together in real life.

Too often physical infrastructure decisions dominate the debate because it’s about building big things you can cut a ribbon in front of, whereas for me, the two should be the subject of one conversation.

I’d also make the case for ‘human’ or ‘social’ infrastructure – that’s investment in skills, education and health, as we need a skilled and healthy workforce to use the internet and our trains – but I probably sound a bit Boris ‘pro-having and pro-eating’ Johnson.

I was actually particularly excited about the ‘free WiFi on trains’ announcement in the government’s Digital Strategy. For me, it doesn’t matter if it takes me three hours to get to Newcastle as long as I can use that time productively. It will be interesting to see how this works in practice.

 

Related | Ask the panel: Metro mayors

 

Stephen Ullathorne
CEO, Gas Tag

Digital infrastructure is far more important than HS2 for growth in the North West. Although it’s always nice to meet people face-to-face, gone are the days where meetings don’t take place because of physical limitations.

More than 50% of meetings that now take place happen in an online space and that number is growing annually.

Technology has led us to a point where we no longer need to be in the same room, city, country or even continent to have a meeting.

If somebody was considering travelling from London to Liverpool for a meeting, would a reduction of less than half an hour on the current travel time sway their decision in favour of travelling? I would argue not.

For me, digital infrastructure is paramount to success in the region.

 

Sam Lawson Johnston
director of real estate, LJ Partnership

Research is starting to reveal that the more digitally connected people become, the lonelier they can feel.

Our team has observed that people and businesses thrive as part of a community, for example in co-working spaces. Because of this, we are focused on creating spaces that enhance physical as well as digital community.

We also believe that, although HS2 is important, current train connections are adequate – so in the short term, digital upgrades are more important.

Start-ups to big corporations will all be able to trade with the whole world because of digital connectivity, which is now more important than ever in a post-Brexit trade arena.

 

Phil Kemp 
chief commercial officer, Bruntwood 

Connectivity counts, be it digital or physical. With people expecting swift travel and internet access anytime, anywhere; digital infrastructure and transport links are both fundamentally important.

A number of factors will contribute to making our digital infrastructure ‘world class’. These include the development of the next phase of broadband and mobile capability, 5G and full fibre, supporting digital businesses to grow and giving consumers access to the best deals on digital connectivity.

That said, the importance of face-to-face communication cannot be underestimated and is what helps drive innovation and growth. This requires better transport links.

We need more capacity on lines to London through HS2 and much faster journeys across the North, making travel easier and giving businesses access to larger labour pools.

The greatest impact on growth in the North West will be how successfully the infrastructure necessary to support both physical and digital connectivity can be brought in.