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Centre for Digital Built Britain completed its five-year mission and closed its doors at the end of September 2022

This website remains as a legacy of the achievements of our five-year foundational journey towards a digital built Britain

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 helping SME manufacturers benefit from digitalisation. Researchers in the Digital Construction on a Shoestring project worked with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to identify and remove barriers to the practical deployment of digital solutions within construction, focusing on reducing cost and complexity. Beneficiaries include SMEs active in the supply chain (manufacturers, architects, building contractors), SMEs pioneering off-site production processes, and those involved in onsite construction. 


The Shoestring process is collaborative. Workshops were run around the UK, to identify the needs of participating organisations. Information gathered was then analysed to create a catalogue of potential digital solutions appropriate to the construction space. These typically use simple commercial ‘off-the-shelf’ technologies and opensource software, ensuring affordability. 

Adapting to the pandemic, online webinars offer SMEs opportunity to rate solutions from the catalogue according to their needs and desires. This enabled the researchers to chart the top needs and desires across construction sectors. A particular distinction was made between onsite construction organisations on the one hand and suppliers and off-site manufacturers on the other. Participants were also assisted to work out what the highest actionable priority was within their own enterprise, documenting their needs through user stories. 

Researchers then partnered with committed SMEs to co-develop demonstrators based on high priority needs. Demonstrators illustrate the power of the solutions to potential users. They allow researchers to study the steps required for implementation, and improve guidance and solutions for later adopters. Where necessary, researchers undertook a small amount of software development, typically up to six weeks, to integrate existing technologies and test processes before passing the resulting solutions to SME partners to deploy.  

The intention is that all solutions should be interoperable, enabling technologies and tools to work together to optimise benefits. SMEs can learn from the solutions implemented by others, while the researchers develop systematised pathways for developing digital solutions.

Outputs and outcomes

70 SMEs took part, with a total of eight collaborative sessions (workshops and webinars). A CDBB blogpost incorporates detailed findings from lead researcher Dr Gokcen Yilmaz. All learning from the research is fed back into the main Shoestring resources, hosted on a dedicated website ( 

The researchers co-developed demonstrators with three SME partners:

Based in Bristol, Snug Homes build modular homes using modern methods of construction (MMC). Reports of issues during a build were typically submitted via WhatsApp. This meant there was no way of categorising, organising or preserving reports. The solution was an issue-tracking system incorporating means to record changes made as a result and the ability to archive past reports. The process makes it possible to identify patterns in issues arising and design solutions to anticipate (and prevent) similar issues arising in future builds.

Natural Building Systems are a Norwich-based start-up, using sustainable timber for off-site manufacturing. Their top need was a way to track materials in their inventory and allocate them to specific jobs, to improve efficiency. The resulting inventory-tracker also helps them retain information about the origins of the materials used in different builds, and maintain accurate records concerning key data such as carbon usage.

With a factory in St Ives, David Smith is a supply-chain SME specialising in timber engineering. Advised by the Shoestring team, the firm has implemented a job-tracking tool to better understand what’s happening on the shop floor. Using barcode scanners, a Raspberry Pi computer, and a low-tech software solution, they can now see how long it takes to make each product, from start to finish. The work quickly improved visibility, with information leveraged to spot problems arising. The David Smith team are now in conversation with another SME partner to learn how a job-tracking card (another Shoestring solution) might be introduced to their workplace.  

Each of these solutions is being integrated back into the Shoestring offer, with learning made available to others via the Shoestring demonstrators.

“As a disruptive company with a highly sustainable and scalable modular construction system we have found that off the shelf products have been too costly or complex for our needs – especially as an ambitious but small SME. Being able to have a tool custom built to suit our needs is something that can then grow and evolve in tandem with our company.”


Chloe Donovan, Chief Executive, Natural Building Systems


So what?

The 2016 Farmer Review, commissioned by the government-appointed Construction Leadership Council, indicated the need for construction to take advantage of digitalisation. Subsequent reports and surveys bear the same message, but that does not make the goal easier to deliver. 

The Shoestring project has created 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. 

A significant aim of the project was to increase awareness of affordable digital solutions among SMEs. What can SME construction organisations achieve simply and cheaply? The catalogue of solutions generated during the research can be accessed by SMEs together with a workshop-based self-assessment to identify and prioritise relevant options. 

"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

Industry impacts

The Shoestring Approach increases awareness of digital needs through workshops, supporting 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. 
Participating companies all reported time savings and potential for significant organisational learning, courtesy of the “feedback loop” embedded in the digital solutions. The new Shoestring Unit, embedded in the Institute for Manufacturing, continues to refine the design for an interface that can help construction-industry users identify and implement solutions independently (that is, depending on the interface alone).

At the core of the Shoestring ambition, each solution should have a matching specification, including a checklist of components for purchase, instructions for assembly, and instructions to download and integrate the required software. Automating the delivery of digital solutions requires further work, but the results look very promising. 

"[Shoestring] allowed us to get a feel for job tracking and barcode scanning, with very little outlay and minimal input from us, to make the thing actually happen, and see some tangible results very quickly."

Simon Wadsworth, Operations Director, David Smith

Potential benefits

The Shoestring approach can help Britain meet Net Zero targets, supporting the digitalisation of SMEs with commitments to innovation and sustainability. Time savings are not only a commercial benefit: the lessons learned through implementation of digital tools and data capture can speed the delivery of high-quality, energy-efficient homes. The body of demonstrators, readily accessible via Shoestring’s online hub, supports other SMEs to learn about and adopt more sustainable practices as well as identify their best route to greater digitalisation. As learning from the inaugural Shoestring project has benefited work with the construction sector, the set of solutions may also prove readily adaptable to SMEs in other industries. 

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. It also enables SMEs to learn from one another, such that collaboration and improvement is not dependent upon the availability of academic researchers. Finally, it meets SMEs where they are, encouraging them to identify their own first (or next) steps and to build digital capabilities incrementally, bridging the digital skills gap in a gentle and reproducible way. 

"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


Requirement workshops and/or webinars were hosted by:

  • Construction Futures Research Centre (University of Wolverhampton)
  • Construction Scotland Innovation Centre
  • Build Off Site
  • Supply Chain Sustainability School
  • Haven Gateway
  • I-Construct

SME Partners for demonstrators included:

  • David Smith, St Ives
  • Snug Homes, Bristol
  • Natural Building Systems, Norwich

The research was supported by:


Most businesses that make up the construction sector are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).  The Digital Construction on a Shoestring project saw academia and industry join forces to increase digital capabilities across all the construction sector’s SMEs.

The project catalysed SMEs’ use of off-the-shelf technologies and opensource software. Project collaborations led to digital solutions that can be repeated, reused and integrated. 

Find out more


Professor Duncan McFarlane

Liz Salter

Dr Gokcen Yilmaz

Dr Greg Hawkridge

Jan Kaiser

Project Status

Current Project