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Northern Powerhouse: The engineering contribution

Simon Harrison

The Powerhouse can become a show house of smart, connected infrastructure, placing the region at the forefront of the fourth industrial revolution, says Mott MacDonald group strategic development manager Simon Harrison, ahead of a major event on the area’s future development this month.

The current Government has both captured imaginations and mobilised cynics in its ambitions for a Northern Powerhouse. Whatever one’s views of the level of commitment implied the idea certainly implies a vision and creates something to rally around. With recent academic work, notably by Autor, Dorn and Hanson1 showing clearly that whilst economies as a whole gain from globalisation former manufacturing heartlands can be long-term losers, something that many residents of de-industrialised northern towns will know instinctively, something is certainly needed. But what vision, and how can engineers help realise it?

The go-to answer is of course infrastructure. Lots of it. We know how to build it, it facilitates employment and economic activity during construction, and creates a platform for growth and innovation when in use. There is much debate about what infrastructure and why, but it has to be core to the vision.

But there is more. As well as infrastructure there needs to be vision for the kind of economic growth that will cement a northern renaissance – sustainable and endurable activity in a globalised world. Northern England already enjoys excellent universities and a long and continuing tradition of craft skills. How can we combine this with infrastructure investment to create long-term competitive advantage?

There seems an interesting opportunity up for grabs. Why not make the Northern Powerhouse the global exemplar for connected infrastructure – using technology to connect the infrastructure to its users and unlock the power of data in optimising its use and asset management? One could go further – even taking action to facilitate some of the emerging global megatrends around the sharing economy, electric and driverless transportation, connected healthcare and many others.

It would need some real vision and imagination, inspired partnerships between public and private sector and academia, carefully targeted stimuli for the right sort of new businesses, procurement to enable and unlock innovation, a focus on appropriate training and skills development, and an integrated view across multiple organisations, both public and private.

All that is a big ask and will need some real leadership. But what a prize! Nothing less than a new northern powerhouse at the forefront of twenty first century engineering, just as it was for the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries.

Who is up for that challenge?

1. The China Syndrome: Local Labor Market Effects of Import Competition in the United States by David H. Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon H. Hanson

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