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Centre for Digital Built Britain


Digitalisation is perceived as being beyond the financial reach of many small and medium sized companies (SMEs). There are a number of commonly cited barriers to engaging with digital tools and technologies, including high entry and operating costs and complexity. Digital Construction on a Shoestring is a collaborative programme between academia and industry that seeks to co-deliver benefits by increasing digital capabilities throughout SMEs using simple, proven low-cost digital solutions. 

The Shoestring programme is designed to increase sector awareness of easy-to-access digital solutions that an SME can develop and apply to improve processes and drive increased productivity and profitability.  

Big picture

The construction sector has been slow to adopt digital process and technology innovations compared to some other sectors, such as aerospace and manufacturing. The past 10 years have seen a drive for digitalisation in this sector with government, industry and industry bodies working together to support change. Aligned to the Construction Sector Deal, the Construction Innovation Hub (The Hub) collaborates with government, academia, industry and partners across the Transforming Construction Challenge by addressing four themes – value, manufacturing, assurance and digital – to transform the way in which buildings and infrastructure are procured, designed, delivered and operated. The programme aims to support construction to deliver market-ready products and processes to shape the future built environment, ensuring safety, quality and value.

Digital Construction on a Shoestring brings the opportunity for SMEs and other construction organisations to work with academic experts from the University of Cambridge Institute for ManufacturingCentre for Digital Built Britain and Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction, to identify specific digital solution priorities according to organisational objectives. Organisations are helped to identify practical pathways for developing and deploying simple, low-cost digital solutions.


Large construction companies often have IT departments and information groups that can lead and support transition to digitalisation. However, many SMEs in construction do not enjoy the same resource and engaging fully with digital technologies and solutions can appear out of reach for them. The Shoestring Approach can help smaller companies with some digital capabilities to get started using digital tools and solutions. 

Conscious that digitalisation can be an expensive financial investment, and the end results are not always as expected, the Shoestring team helps smaller organisations to start on the process of exploring digital options by taking a low-risk approach to add digital solutions and capabilities in an incremental manner and supplied support in implementing a solution. 

Tried and tested

Digital Construction on a Shoestring follows the Shoestring Approach that emerged from Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring, a University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing project that helps SME manufacturers to benefit from digitalisation without excessive cost or risk, and with limited requirements for digital skills. Shoestring does not set out to deliver a comprehensive digital transformation but rather provides a collaborative approach for SMEs to develop and increase their digital capabilities.

The inaugural project focused on co-developing very simple digital solutions for SME manufacturing companies to address immediate needs. This model has attracted a lot of interest among the manufacturing SME community, and the initiative continues to appeal to a growing partner base which has more than doubled in numbers since the launch and has involved 300 companies in different aspects of the work. 

Shoestring workshops are designed to identify and prioritise the participating organisations’ areas of need that require a digital solution. Data collected from the workshops identified a finite set of digital solutions needed by most of the participating small manufacturers – 59 solutions were identified of which the top 15 dominate the digital priority areas for most companies. This is significant and important as deploying digital solutions at scale across many SMEs is required in order to keep costs affordable to all stakeholders and to overcome the two main barriers preventing engagement with digitalisation – cost and complexity. 

The Shoestring team also organised a number of hackathons as part of the manufacturing project and plan to include more as part of Digital Construction on a Shoestring. Hackathons attract a younger audience to the construction space. The most recent event featured 130 students on a virtual hackathon, working in small groups on one of three different development problems over 48 hours, and the results were impressive.

Demonstrating what is possible is key to the dissemination and adoption of the Shoestring Approach. The Shoestring team set out to develop five demonstrators for Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring as well as two to three pilots; to date the team has completed 15 demonstrators and are already involved in five pilots with more in the pipeline. Participants from the SME manufacturing community are keen to maintain momentum and progress and there are plans to launch a programme to set up a foundation (hub) to continue collaboration between the Institute for Manufacturing and project partners. This next step achieves the aim of Shoestring to equip and empower SME organisations to identify organisational digital needs and build their own low-cost digital solutions. 

Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring is close to having a number of solutions operating continuously within the SME manufacturing space. There is a real appetite for this approach and the Shoestring model is now being applied to the construction space. 

The hallmarks of the Shoestring Approach include: supporting SMEs to implement low-cost digital solutions to help improve productivity; providing solutions that are pragmatic, accessible, useful and based on low-cost components; accounting for regulations, safety and security; engaging creativity of students, IT and start-up communities; creating digital solutions that are repeatable, reusable and integrable. 

The Digital Construction on a Shoestring project

Digital Construction on a Shoestring aims to break down barriers to the practical deployment of digital solutions within construction to include: 

  • supply chain – (manufacturers, architects, building contractors) organisations which are often SMEs
  • off-site – the Shoestring team has experience working with Laing O’Rourke, a pioneer of off-site production processes, as well as other off-site constructors. Off-site construction spaces lend themselves to Shoestring solutions which can add ‘value around the edges’ of the core production operations
  • onsite – onsite construction often includes organisations working on developments that could be helped by Shoestring solutions.

Shoestring for Construction workshops have been run all over the UK and are designed to identify and prioritise the participating organisations’ areas of need that require a digital solution. Data from the workshops are taken and compiled to create a Construction Top 10 priority list across suppliers, off-site and onsite companies. A number of systemised pathways for developing digital solutions are formed. Solutions are interoperable enabling technologies and tools to work together to optimise benefits.

The Shoestring team have used these workshops to build a catalogue of potential digital solutions in the construction space, often comprising simple commercial ‘off the shelf’ technologies, of which some are being co-developed as demonstrators enabling the organisations to see solutions up and running and working. 

The main aim of the project is to increase awareness among SME construction organisations as to what can be achieved simply and cheaply to provide digital solutions to their problems. Following co-development of demonstrators, the participating organisations are empowered and equipped to build their own digital solutions. Most of the solutions developed are helping someone in a construction organisation to do something – but better. Shoestring participants are happy to share experiences and benefits.  

In the longer term, Shoestring plans to review all the solutions to formalise the design approach and create a prototype software environment for semi-automated digital solution design – a ‘Shoestring Ikea’. It is intended also that the Shoestring foundation (hub) will be expanded to support construction solutions, share knowledge, experience and resources.  


The project is organised in three phases. Phase one identified requirements and scoped demonstrators as part of a number of Digital Construction on a Shoestring requirements workshops.  These workshops – to identify the needs for construction, form the team and launch the project – were held in 2020. Phase two, which has just started, extends requirements capture specifically to the onsite construction domain and is identifying and building demonstrators and planning outreach work to showcase demonstrators and how to build solutions. Phase three will pull all the solutions together to formalise the design approach and create a prototype software environment for semi-automated digital solution design. The proposed Shoestring foundation (hub) will be expanded to support construction solutions, share knowledge, experience and resources.  

Image: Top Ten Digital Solutions


Key insights

There are plans to develop software to automate shoestring solution designs that would allow a user to input a solution specification and automatically produce a "digital solution kit". The kit will include: a checklist of components for purchase, instructions for assembly and instructions to download and integrate the required software.

“Digitalisation might be difficult for SMEs, as they get confused about the terminology and they are busy with what they are doing and producing products. Working within the Shoestring project, SMEs can demystify that and make the digitalisation simpler and cost effective for businesses. We would like to engage with academia and get the right solutions for our business.”

Will Bridgman, Chairman at Warren Services Ltd

Benefit and value 

The Shoestring Approach increases awareness of digital needs through workshops and helps organisations to think through their priorities – what do they need first? It helps participants to visualise what those needs look like and provides a pathway to building or buying a solution. It gives a small company a "toe in the water" into engaging with digitalisation. 

Industry benefit

Many reports and studies show construction has much to benefit from digitalisation. The Shoestring project provides a broadly applicable set of pathways for construction to become more digitally equipped by installing digital solutions that enhance and support their operation. This is a creative, collaborative and economically viable approach that builds digital incrementation and provides a complementary contributor to digital construction development. The construction sector is in the process of redefining itself and Shoestring helps to bring more organisations working in the construction space into the digital domain. 

"Listening and working with the team, who are responsible for the Digital Construction on a Shoestring project, really opens your eyes to what is possible.  Construction is not well known for quickly adopting and taking up new technology so working with experts to demystify, demonstrate and facilitate potential new ways of applying everyday digital technology in the Construction sector will undoubtedly accelerate modernisation, improve efficiencies and build safer working environments."

Derek Godfrey, Business Development Director at Vulcan Ellis


Organisations who have hosted requirements workshops:

  • Construction Futures Research Centre at the University of Wolverhampton
  • Construction Scotland Innovation Centre
  • Build Off Site
  • Supply Chain Sustainability School
  • Haven Gateway

Meet the Shoestring team

Lead: Professor Duncan McFarlaneProfessor of Industrial Informational Engineering and Head, Distributed Information & Automation Laboratory:







Liz Salter Industrial Associate Institute for Manufacturing:





Dr Gokcen Yilmaz, Research Associate at the Institute for Manufacturing:








Dr Greg Hawkridge, Research Associate at the Institute for Manufacturing:











Jan Kaiser, Research Student:

“Digital Construction on a Shoestring is a low-cost and low-risk approach which helps SMEs in the construction industry to develop simple and affordable digital solutions and to provide practical deployment of these solutions.”  Jan Kaiser, Research Student, Digital Construction on a Shoestring 






If you would like to know more about the Shoestring Approach see and visit the research page for this project here.

Need to know

  • SMEs in the construction industry believe that improving Quality would have the most positive impact on their ability to win more orders
  • These SMEs see their main constraints in the management of their People and Information
  • The most popular digital solution selected is Unified Change Management and Issue Reporting