Keeping places connected: the essential role of digital in a COVID world

By Chris Rawson | May 25, 2020

Continuing our global pandemic coverage, the next in the series focuses on perspectives from our Urban Solutions team in the UK.

As COVID-19 continues to impact the UK economy and the long-term implications begin to manifest, it's clear that the country will experience some profound changes on a scale not seen during most of our lifetimes. 

There has been a marked reduction in mobility across some of the UK's largest cities and over 20% of businesses have furloughed staff using the government's job retention scheme. Yet, the pandemic has also helped illustrate the country's remarkable ability to adapt.

Working from home: the need for adaptation 

With upwards of 50% of workers across all sectors estimated to be working from home, COVID-19 has led to a huge shift in employment patterns. In 2019, just 5% of workers were regularly working from home, showcasing a marked difference. Sector leaders have already prompted a debate about the longer-term implications of these changes that are likely to usher in entirely new ways of operating businesses. A prime example of this is Barclays, which has suggested it could massively reduce the numbers of employees working out of its Canary Wharf premises as part of a re-imagined location strategy. Other businesses across a broad base of sectors are expected to follow suit. 

Digital infrastructure anchoring the economy

The flexibility and robustness that many businesses have exploited is linked to digital infrastructure and the wide availability of high-quality connectivity. In the midst of the current pandemic, the UK has been able to leverage its digital maturity to good effect, keeping places and people connected and the economy moving. In many ways, this has been a silent success story, yet one which may have longer-term consequences. 

The sudden outbreak of COVID-19 has been a severe test for digital infrastructure networks and largely, they seem to have passed the test. Data bears this out in practice, with infrastructure coping well with shifting demand and changes in user behavior. The stability of our digital networks is a timely demonstration of the importance of resilient national assets. 

A reflection of sustained government support

Driven by funding, stimulus programs, trials, and market engagement, the UK's super fast broadband coverage has increased by over 50% in nine years (current coverage is above 96%), 4G connectivity now extends to 91% of the country's premises, and investment in the latest generation of connectivity (full fiber/5G) is rapidly gathering pace

Rebalancing the digital divide

Yet, despite this momentum, there remains an issue of equity. Full fiber coverage is distinctly uneven with places such as Hull having near ubiquitous coverage (98%+), whilst less than 1% of premises can access a gigabit connection in the Orkney Islands. Some areas also still don't have a basic level of service; more than 50,000 premises are not able to access a decent fixed or mobile connection. COVID has underlined the vulnerability of these areas which were already missing out on the economic, social, and environmental benefits associated with online access. Whilst the networks in place have done a stellar job, there is certainly more to do. 

The government has set itself a goal to propel the UK towards a digital future backed with an ambitious funding commitment of £5bn to support a gigabit revolution that will push full fiber and 5G connectivity nationwide by 2025. Alongside commercial investments being made by fixed and mobile providers, this public investment will help make the country's digital networks even more robust and importantly, globally competitive. 

Looking ahead: securing digital infrastructure resilience 

COVID-19 has sharpened the focus and rationale for further investment. We at Hatch believe there are four key areas that will secure the UK's future digital capability and underpin a more resilient economy:

  • Tackling remaining super fast hot spots to ensure universal base access
  • Rapidly accelerating gigabit connectivity at scale to build further resilience and be able to sustain greater reliance on digital solutions for work and learning 
  • Launch a national effort to work with:
    • businesses to drive take-up among employees
    • education institutions to move readily into the vanguard of online learning for every aspect of digital skills
    • and, public/voluntary services to make a step change on digital support and care services
  • Additional effort to harness the UK's cyber security and digital expertise to make our digital lives safer and more enriching. 

We can learn powerful lessons from the pandemic. We have the agility to move quickly into dispersed digital employment patterns and we have the digital infrastructure to sustain safe, remote working. We now need to re-grow our economy and re-invent our services around new models of delivery that are agile, responsive, and smart. The resilience of the UK's economy will depend on it. 

“Whilst this blog is written in the context of what we have observed in the UK, the same perspectives can be applied on a global scale where we see similar trends, the disruption of digitalisation and a heavy emphasis on continued investment in digital infrastructure. This pace of change will no doubt be asymmetrical dependent on the countries and continents concerned, but the effects of COVID-19 will change many facets of working and living on an international scale, with digital technologies at the core of future innovation and resilience.”

Please contact Chris Rawson and the Hatch team for more information on how data and research can tell a digital story and establish the rationale for action.