‘The future is already here’ states sci-fi novelist William Gibson who in the 1980’s coined the term cyberspace, ‘it’s just not very evenly distributed’.
Gibson’s words reveal two important themes: Much of the technology which will transform our lives exists today but is yet to become widely adopted; access to such transformative technology is unevenly distributed, with geographic, demographic and socioeconomic factors influencing accessibility and affordability.
The uneven distribution of digital technologies, specifically the internet is the focus of a campaign launched by Baroness Martha Lane Fox, founder of lastminute.com known as DOT EVERYONE.
Fox delivered an inspiring speech at the London Science Museum for the 2015 Richard Dimbleby Lecture in which she set out the case for the UK to drive to lead the world in the adoption of digital, becoming ‘the most connected and creative in the world’.
A core theme of Fox’s speech was about solving the digital skills crisis, quoting Aaron Swartz: ‘It’s not ok not to understand the internet anymore’. A key issue identified by Fox was the lack of women in the technology sector at just 14%, roughly half that of the House of Lords.
Fox proposes three key actions in her lecture:
- Everybody needs to understand the internet
- Get more women involved in the technology sector
- Address the moral and ethical issues the internet presents to society
DOT EVERYONE targets UK Government policy and whilst subsequent debate has been split about whether the proposed solution of a new national institution is the right answer, most commentators recognise the impact of the digital revolution, and the challenge of developing digital skills for everyone and the poor representation of women in STEM jobs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
There are strong parallels between Fox’s lecture and the challenges facing the engineering and construction sector. In Britain it is forecast that we fill face a shortfall of 36,800 qualified engineers by 2050 (source). Women make up just 12.8% of the STEM workforce (source).
Remembering Gibson’s statement that ‘the future is already here’ we can identify significant digital transformation on the horizon for the engineer. The most immediate example of this is BIM (Building Information Modelling) and digital engineering. To realise the potential of BIM engineers must combine digital information management skills with the traditional skills associated with design. The challenge of BIM is not simply to adopt new technology, it requires a new mindset.
Looking beyond BIM we see the emergence of smart cities – with buildings, infrastructure and citizens connected in real-time through the internet; the automation of knowledge work by machines which can learn through the application of artificial intelligence, advanced new materials including components and structures created through 3D printing; the application of advanced robotics.
These innovations are set to revolutionise engineering, and will transform the built environment and the way in which we interact with it. This is not science fiction, all of the technologies described exist today either as prototypes in research labs or as pockets of innovative practice as yet not widely adopted. For the benefits of the new wave of digital innovation to become more evenly distributed we must work differently, and we must think digitally.
Martha Lane Fox described in her lecture the opportunity of the internet, and argues that the opportunity must be available to, and be shaped by everyone in society. Fox points to the low participation of women in technology sector jobs as an example of uneven distribution which requires urgent attention.
The construction and engineering sector needs new skills and mindset to take advantage of digital, and therefore stands to gain from initiatives such as DOT EVERYONE. The engineering sector is playing an important role in encouraging women and other under-represented groups into the workforce, this must continue and be accelerated.
Just as in wider society we must ensure that everyone understands the internet, we must work to ensure that career opportunities in engineering are open to everyone and that everyone working in the sector understands digital engineering.