The UK’s digital transformation: why it’s about more than just WFH

15 June 2022

We all know that over the last two years, the pandemic has sped up the UK’s digital transformation. As physical doors closed – for offices, for shops, for council services and even for doctors’ surgeries – digital doors opened. Our own study with the Centre for Economics and Business Research last year revealed that organisations boosted their IT spend by 18% compared to 2019 and digital transformation projects prompted by Covid-19 were fast-tracked by an average of three years across the UK.

But we also know that the digital race isn’t limited to remote working. After all, this discussion only covers part of the workforce – the one that can virtualise their activities. What about the wider impact of the pandemic? Never in such a limited time frame have we seen such an enormous shift in the way we live than in the last two years – from commuting, socializing, shopping and schooling to our use of public services. Does technology have a bigger role to play in helping the UK adapt long term?

Innovating in response to Covid-19

The technology sector is already showing that with the right investment in innovation – and the right partnerships – it can help private and public organisations emerge from the pandemic stronger. Remote working has been an important driver, but when we look long term, digital transformation is about more than this.
Fundamentally, it’s about using digital tech to help organisations improve operations and to meet the needs of their customers and their people – even as these needs change at a rapid pace. Behaviours are changing fast, but as technology and connectivity have improved, so has our ability to solve problems.

IoT: helping paint a picture of a changing society

The Internet of Things (IoT) – a network of connected devices – plays an important role here – as a way of collecting and sharing data at scale. For example, identifying insights from data gathered digitally by IoT can help decision-makers understand changing consumer behaviour, and therefore plan better public services. This has been a key focus of a series of government-funded trials to help Thames Valley local authorities plan improvements to air quality, public health, road surfaces, traffic flow and energy infrastructure.

The Thames Valley Berkshire Live Lab includes five trials using data to shape future improvements to issues like potholes, traffic congestion, pollution, and other health risks. In a model set to help local authorities plan smarter towns, the trials combine movement data collected from anonymised, aggregated connections to the O2 mobile network with anonymised information from other IoT sources such as air quality sensors and cameras mounted on bin lorries.

This information can help councils pinpoint the most congested transport routes, and show exactly which roads need improving, exposure to dangerous air pollution, and how residents can make greener choices.

Ultimately, it allows local authorities to quickly make informed improvements, cut carbon emissions and improve the quality of life for residents and businesses alike – even as the way we move around changes.

Building AI into recovery plans

As organisations build back after the pandemic, how we use our public spaces safely and efficiently is an important challenge: and another area where digital transformation can have a positive impact. AI in particular is a tool that – when paired with data – can help. We’ve seen it ourselves at Virgin Media O2, using video analytics and AI technology to enhance the customer experience and efficiency in our own stores even with COVID-19 restrictions in place.
Spatial Insights is a technology that uses privacy-protected footage from CCTV cameras (without the use of facial recognition) to deliver insights around the movement and flow of customers in public spaces. For example, by monitoring queue lengths, transaction times and dwell times in retail units, it can help businesses deliver a better in-store experience for their customers and their staff. 

Beyond retail, these kinds of AI-assisted insights can also benefit transport hubs, leisure venues, offices, outdoor areas and commercial property. This can allow managers to accurately monitor office occupancy and usage of space, where tills or desks should be placed, or improve customer services.

The future of the way we live and work

Hybrid working has been a central part of the UK’s digital transformation in recent years, but the potential for innovation enabled by AI and IoT means it’s expanding beyond that. Yes, we are changing the 9 to 5. But we’re also changing the way we interact, travel and do business face to face. These technologies can help businesses respond to the changing way we work – and live.

Let’s embrace the widespread adoption of digital transformation kickstarted during the pandemic. As the way we live and work continues to evolve, the technology industry can help to build back a healthier, safer, and more productive society for us all.

By Sergio Budkin, director of market development, Virgin Media O2 Business