Engineering the Revolution: A Social Approach to Digitisation in the Infrastructure Industry

  • Researchers: Prof Pauline Leonard, Dr Roger Tyers
  • Research partners: Mott MacDonald
  • Funding body: ESRC
  • Project status: Current

Developments in digital technologies such as 3D modelling, AI and ‘digital twins’ offer transformative potential to the infrastructure industry. Yet to date, the industry has been slow to digitise. In 2019, Professor Pauline Leonard and Dr Roger Tyers, of the Work Futures Research Centre at the University of Southampton, collaborated with the global engineering consultants Mott MacDonald to investigate the human and social issues challenging the digitisation of the infrastructure industry, through 49 interviews with key informants in Mott MacDonald and other stakeholder organisations.

The engineering industry is often seen as ‘lagging behind’ other sectors when it comes to the take-up of digital technology, a factor possibly linked with recent low productivity growth within the sector. Digital technologies, such as 3D modelling, AI and ‘digital twins’, promise new opportunities for improve productivity and growth. Yet it is recognised that the complex structure of the industry, plus social and cultural factors within its workforce, present real challenges to increased digital take-up.

This project utilises a social science lens to investigate this conundrum, and draws on interviews with 49 participants, conducted in 2019. Participants were mainly staff at our host company, Mott MacDonald, plus other participants from clients, suppliers, contractors and stakeholders relevant to this topic.

The interview data highlighted affordances and barriers to digitisation which are ‘social’ in their nature. We utilised a framework from social practice theory[1] to recognise these barriers in terms of three elements: ‘Competences’ (skills and training), ‘Materials’ (e.g. software, hardware, legal compliance), and ‘Meanings’ (cultural and symbolic considerations). Findings were fed back to stakeholders in the form of a report, and further academic outputs are forthcoming.

Funding for this work was provided through UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Industrial Strategy, which brings academics and business together in knowledge exchange partnerships.


[1] Shove, E., Pantzar, M., & Watson, M. (2012). The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday Life and How it Changes. Sage.

More information

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