Broadbent claims the digital revolution has peaked, but it’s barely begun!

Posted on 8 Jun 2018 by The Manufacturer

The deputy governor of the Bank of England, Dr Ben Broadbent, recently found himself in hot water by referring to the recent economic downturn as a ‘menopausal moment’.

In the heat of the argument about this being a sexist comment, most people lost sight of what was probably the more serious failing in the analysis.

Rab Scott, head of digital at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), explains.  

Red london bus city architecture uk Bank of England - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Broadbent and his chums in the investment banks should be sitting upright at the prospect of a $100 trillion opportunity – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Ben Broadbent may have apologised to his female audience for his ill-chosen remarks on the UK’s ‘menopausal’ growth figures, but the deputy governor of the Bank of England has expressed no contrition for another, perhaps more serious, lapse of judgment.

In his all too revealing interview with The Daily Telegraph, Broadbent implied the positive impact of the digital revolution on the UK economy had peaked. Such careless talk – so uncharacteristic of Threadneedle Street on matters of interest rates – could cost jobs and lose markets.

Just a few months after the publication of the Made Smarter Review, and just days before a government announcement of a £20m scheme in the North West aimed at increasing the uptake of digital technology among manufacturing supply chains, the hapless Broadbent reclines on his sofa and claims that the digital revolution is over. Sorry Ben. It’s barely begun.

Had he but glanced at the introduction to the Made Smarter Review, he would have noticed that the World Economic Forum has identified the adoption of digital technologies as a $100 trillion opportunity for both industry and society.

A £20m public investment in the North West might be nothing more than a blip on a trader’s computer screen, but even Broadbent and his chums in the investment banks should be sitting upright at the prospect of a $100 trillion opportunity.

It is a measure of how unbalanced the UK economy remains, that both the City and the government – in the form of the Treasury – seem largely blind to the potential of supporting investment in, and the adoption of, digital manufacturing technologies.

In the corridors of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, it is common knowledge that the bold ambition of Made Smarter – and its chief architect, Juergen Maier – was thwarted by Treasury mandarins with little or no commitment to putting serious funding behind the Industrial Strategy.

We know digital has not peaked. Flick through the pages of The Manufacturer on any given week and you will read story after story of firms who are only just embarking on the digital journey.

How many tens of thousands of others are still looking out of their factory windows to see if the economic and political weather has improved sufficiently for them to risk the climb? They may be waiting for some time. So, perhaps we should be making our own weather?

That’s the lesson of the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) which has been crucial to transforming a region blighted by government de-industrialisation policy.

Digital Revolution - The research projects taking at Factory 2050 produce real-world answers to today’s manufacturing problems – image courtesy of AMRC.
The research projects taking at Factory 2050 produce real-world answers to today’s manufacturing problems – image courtesy of AMRC.

Less than 15 years since our first building opened, the AMRC has turned a post-industrial wasteland into a global innovation hub attracting inward investors such as Rolls-Royce, Boeing and McLaren.

This industrial renaissance is the result of a remarkable partnership between the public and private sectors, between academia and industry: a partnership described as ‘unique’ by the head of artificial intelligence at Google, Stanford University Professor Fei-Fei Li.

The unique feature she identified was the clear research pipeline that connects fundamental science across diverse disciplines over the notorious ‘valley of death’ to the AMRC, where ideas become innovations to be de-risked ready for integration into industrial production lines.

Others have also recognised this uniqueness, with the result that we now have expansion plans across the North and Midlands – the engine room of the digital industrial revolution.

Perhaps Broadbent should pause for thought and then follow in the footsteps of the governor (he came here in 2015), and travel north to the AMRC. While he may not find himself at the very peak of digital manufacturing, he will see its outlines clearly from our Factory 2050 and realise the real potential digital has to deliver step-changes in productivity and performance.