Future business: how UK innovation is driven by AI, automation and robotics

A recent report from NatWest, co-authored by four leading futurists, identified key trends that could affect SMEs for years to come.

The NatWest Future Businesses Report explores the business trends most likely to emerge in the UK in the next 10 – 15 years. Included within it are predictions from a panel of four leading futurists: Dr Ian Pearson, Shivvy Jervis, Kate Hardcastle MBE and Tom Cheesewright. 

Against a backdrop of an artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics revolution, mundane tasks from turning on the lights to food shopping will be carried out by automatons, in a trend that is already increasingly evident. 

Drones could keep us safe, driverless vehicles could take us to work, virtual shop assistants could help select the perfect outfits for us to wear, and farmers could use algorithms to decide which crops to feed. 

So, what other innovations might we see as the business landscape evolves over the next 10 – 15 years? Ian Burrow, NatWest’s Head of Agriculture and Renewable Energy, and Neil Bellamy, Head of Technology, Media and Telecoms, share their thoughts. 

Energy trends: efficiency and climate change

The panel predicts that localised energy grids could prevent larger-scale energy shortages, harnessing a range of local energy sources, including solar and wind. Consumers with money to invest may build their own microgrids to minimise risk in an increasingly uncertain market. 

Homes with solar panels may be permitted to launch local co-operatives. These community hubs will be able to over-produce energy and sell it directly to neighbours, bypassing energy distributors. By cutting out the middleman, everyone will benefit from lower costs while helping to meet carbon zero goals. 

New businesses will likely spring up to source the space and hardware, connect everything and maintain the systems. 

On top of this, microgrid managers would be responsible for the day-to-day oversight and management of these localised grids. 

Ian Burrow says: “How we consider and approach energy has changed exponentially in the last 10 years. A focus on energy efficiency and the drive to limit climate change has and continues to be transformed through technology and will continue to benefit in the future from smart technology and AI. 

As the economy continues to digitalise it will be more important than ever to ensure that the digital infrastructure of countries, companies and consumers is safe and secure

Neil Bellamy, Head of Technology, Media and Telecoms, NatWest

“Climate impact and energy assessments will continue to develop from the auditor-with-a-clipboard approach to instantaneous and continuous monitoring for all.

“At NatWest we are supporting a broad range of sectors as they seek to become more energy-efficient and make a sustainable and lasting transition to renewable energy sources.”

IT trends: safety and post-quantum security

Private security via drone-mounted surveillance could replicate the benefits of living in a gated community without the cost. This technology could also be used to assist in policing big events or securing large businesses and homes with large grounds. Drones will be accurately deployed, and directed to where they are needed, supported by a human team of security experts. 

Dr Ian Pearson suggests the development of security drone fleets may also give rise to companies specialising in new home-protection products. This would be boosted by the ability to track and apprehend offenders. 

What happens to our digital world if the cryptography that secures all our communications and transactions is cracked? This is one promise of quantum computing, the fast-advancing alternative to traditional computers. Cryptography relies on the sort of maths problems that quantum computing is suited to solve, which means once it becomes widely available, we will need to upgrade a lot of systems. 

Fortunately, there are quantum-ready forms of cryptography, but with almost every organisation in the world likely to need an upgrade – a lot of opportunities will be created for businesses and individuals in this field. 

Neil Bellamy notes: “As the economy continues to digitalise it will be more important than ever to ensure that the digital infrastructure of countries, companies and consumers is safe and secure.”

Construction and engineering trends: robots, drones and 3D

Exoskeletons are coming to a construction site near you. Designed to increase safety and give the wearer superhuman strength, a range of different full body suits could allow workers to do more, for longer. But the larger they get, the more expertise will be needed to pilot them. That means opportunities for expert pilots, trainers and technologists. 

Dr Ian Pearson says the construction industry is one of the most accessible to automation and so the use of AI and robots is likely to increase steadily. With building sites free of humans for much of the time, high-speed assembly, 3D printing, and aerial drone work could construct buildings very quickly, with short intervals incorporated where skilled specialist humans come in to do specific tasks. 

This is also likely to make construction safer, over having people working alongside lots of robots – particularly given it’s much easier to make a cheap and fast robot if it doesn’t have to watch out for people all the time! 

Shivvy Jervis says that businesses using 3D printing, robotics and automation can build houses twice as fast as usual methods, with 80% less man hours and eight times less waste. This will benefit consumers as it will help address the ongoing housing crisis in the UK, providing faster alternatives to construction. 

Finally, this increased speed of producing new homes may also be helpful in disaster situations or for housing those in immediate need.


Download a copy of the NatWest Future Businesses Report        

This material is published by NatWest Group plc (“NatWest Group”), for information purposes only and should not be regarded as providing any specific advice. Recipients should make their own independent evaluation of this information and no action should be taken, solely relying on it. This material should not be reproduced or disclosed without our consent. It is not intended for distribution in any jurisdiction in which this would be prohibited. Whilst this information is believed to be reliable, it has not been independently verified by NatWest Group and NatWest Group makes no representation or warranty (express or implied) of any kind, as regards the accuracy or completeness of this information, nor does it accept any responsibility or liability for any loss or damage arising in any way from any use made of or reliance placed on, this information. Unless otherwise stated, any views, forecasts, or estimates are solely those of NatWest Group, as of this date and are subject to change without notice. Copyright © NatWest Group. All rights reserved.

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