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Awards 2024
Dianne Child photo

People, Place and the Power of Supply Chain

Yesterday I gave a presentation at the Harnessing Robotics and AI for Challenging Environments event with RAICo, I was asked to provide some context to how robotics sits in our area and the difference it could make for our people. For those who weren’t at the event I’ve turned the presentation into a blog here-I do love to get the most value from content!

So the photo above is a very young me. I was born on Mirehouse in a very different world to the one we live in today. I grew up in an area where we had the mines, where my dad’s brothers worked; Marchon, where my maternal grandfather worked; Smiths the printers where my mum and her mum worked; Optilon the zip factory where my dad worked and Kangol where for some reason none of my family worked….you get the picture-our local economy was much more diverse with more employers.

But let’s not look at that time with rose tinted glasses, most people living in our area were poorer then & something we don’t talk about much is the fact that generally most people in our area are doing quite well. The problem is we have geographically well defined pockets where there are really high deprivation figures and where people don’t get access to the opportunities that the rest of us are benefitting from. Geographically these haven’t really varied in decades which means someone born there is immediately facing barriers someone born 5 miles away isn’t.

Looking at history in the 1980’s the UK deindustrialised and became a service led economy. This hit the regions of the UK hard. Each of those employers I mentioned earlier closed down and as they did Sellafield, frankly, saved us. When I talk about Sellafield here I’m talking about it as a place-a site that includes the supply chain companies. They absorbed the workforce and while we are an area with pockets of deeply entrenched deprivation figures, if it hadn’t been for Sellafield we would have been a whole area of deprivation figures. Now some people say we’d have innovated our way out of that and brought new industry in to the area but I have to disagree, because frankly there wasn’t a queue of employers trying to get into this area except for those who wanted to be part of Sellafield’s Supply Chain.

Now I could do a whole talk about the positives and negatives of that but I think most of us who live in the area would say that we could have derived more value from that work. For too many years, alongside the UK nationally, we confused cost with value, contracts were, and let’s be honest sometimes still are, based on lowest cost rather than greatest value. If you ask people what they really value they’ll talk about wanting good well paid jobs for their family and neighbours, quality schools for their children, comfortable homes and a vibrant town centre. When we have good, honest conversations about contracts for works and services rather than “what’s the cheapest you can do it for” conversations we get better planning and better value delivery. Procurement is key to delivering the value that we care about.

So what’s this got to do with robotics? How do we make sure AI and robotics can deliver the things that really matter to people and place? Well it turns out that journey with Sellafield and it’s supply chain over the last couple of decades has given us information that we can use to maximise that chance. As an area we’ve developed expertise in one of those so called “soft skills” (which are actually usually the hardest!) Social Value and Social Impact. We have an understanding and the data to back it up on what things need to improve and the start of an understanding on how we can do that.

We’ve also as an area got something quite special in BECBC (now I know I’m going to say that but bear with me). BECBC was not set up by the council, though they’re members. It wasn’t set up by Sellafield, though again they’re members. It was set up by the supply chain companies coming together & creating BECBC & that’s really special because when I talk to people from other areas they’re amazed by how much we collaborate and support each other within the supply chain here. That’s special and a big advantage for us if we make the most of it.

A recent University of Cambridge report found that “Well-functioning supply chains drive economic growth and are critical enablers of innovation and value creation.” (see the full report here). In a world where all political parties are talking about the need for economic growth supply chains are a vital component.

So when we talk about taking the learning from experience at Sellafield and using it in robotics we need to be talking about more than the engineering. We need to be talking about the collaboration skills, the social impact expertise and our knowledge and understanding of the place we live in. Using robotics to develop a more diverse local economy that delivers opportunities for the area is something we have the tools to achieve-the question now is will you help make sure that happens?

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