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Collaboration key to supporting SMEs during economic recovery

Creating new ways to bring SMEs and large organisations together should be a priority for any large corporate, says Arthur Thornton of Atkins.

Modern times are proving testing for us all – but SMEs will be feeling the squeeze more than most. Supporting them is crucial, and we larger players in the construction sector have an important role to play in their survival.

SMEs are the lifeblood of the UK economy and a major driver of productivity in the infrastructure and construction sector. There are around 190,000 of them, creating 54% of industry turnover, totalling £191bn in revenue. Our sector needs SMEs. Their technical and operational innovation combined with expertise in solving complex challenges will be critical to the UK’s economic recovery as lockdown measures are slowly lifted.

At this crucial time, we must recognise that they may need our help in navigating the choppy waters of the coming months ahead. We must make it a priority to ensure SMEs have the opportunity to respond to projects innovatively and make meaningful connections with us, larger corporates and our clients. We must look for opportunities where they can collaborate with us, and where we can capitalise on their specialist expertise or niche products and services. By working together we will find the expedient solutions needed to help to get the UK economy back on its feet.

As the past few months have forced us all to embrace technology like never before, it has also created new kinds of virtual connections, and the online space holds much potential as a way to build bridges between SMEs and corporates who operate in a vast, international marketplace. By publishing opportunities online, we can encourage SMEs to come forward and respond and ask them to help us meet big infrastructure challenges by providing their expertise and specialist knowledge.

One example of how this can work in practice is Atkins’ new Digital Intelligent Brokerage, launched just before Covid-19 appeared on the world’s radar. By signing up and inputting their company details, SMEs can respond to opportunities from large organisations seeking new approaches to persistent problems.

Last year, we worked with Wiltshire Council on a project funded by the Department for Transport to successfully gather responses to the ongoing problem of potholes in roads, publicising the opportunity to more than 150,000 SMEs. This resulted in 25 SMEs being appointed to provide their services.

Their inventive, niche solutions ranged from specialist new surfacing technologies and state-of-the-art hole cutters to drone image capturing. Contributions were automatically screened by the system using algorithms which learn as they go before a final assessment by our own experts. The SME database is designed to evolve and grow, creating a bank of defined problems, matching expertise to issue, and therefore avoiding having to reinvent the wheel each time a new opportunity is posted.

This kind of collaborative tool has real potential to open-up the UK and international marketplace for hundreds if not thousands of SMEs, because problems often require more than one solution – and because it’s online, it has additional value in being able to reach out and make connections while social distancing remains in place. I also believe it has potential across other sectors, such as highways, rail or energy pipelines.

SMEs are specialists, so their products and services can cut across sector requirements, from aviation to sewerage treatment plants. This we must embrace and use to our advantage as we face the challenges ahead in all their complexity.

Creating new ways to bring SMEs and large organisations together should be a priority for any large corporate that is international and multi-disciplinary. As a sector we collectively recognise the power and value of collaboration – initiatives like this not only support SMEs, but they also help us get closer to seeing and understanding our clients’ needs and help them find practical, inventive answers.

Arthur Thornton is an associate director for Infrastructure at Atkins.

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