Many great moments spring to mind when one thinks of McLaren. There are the Grand Prix victories and Formula One titles of James Hunt, Lewis Hamilton and the late Ayrton Senna. The McLaren F1 long held the record for the fastest production car. And McLaren have been pioneers in such fields as aerodynamics, lightweight materials and electric power.
McLaren is no longer just a motor-racing team, however. Over the past few years they have taken the technologies and skills developed in Formula 1 and begun to look at how these could bring about improvements in fields as diverse as healthcare, energy and manufacturing. Last week, I visited McLaren with a group of Permanent Secretary colleagues to see how their innovative work could contribute to our ambitions to design the most modern and efficient civil service anywhere.
The Technology Centre in Woking, designed by Lord Foster, is an architectural masterpiece. The foyer is lined with championship winning cars. No two models were the same, with each modified to be more responsive, to turn quicker, to go faster.
For me, the highlight of our visit was seeing the control room used by McLaren’s engineers to direct the team’s strategy during races. During every race, it receives real-time performance information from 400 different sensors on the car. The volume and complexity of this data is staggering – the equivalent of 6,000 phone books. Using cutting-edge analytics software, this data is visualised for the engineers in a series of graphs and charts that allow them to make split-second decisions on what the driver should do next.
This approach is exactly how McLaren has helped other organisations to gain a competitive edge – in everything from financial services to factory processes and the handling of clinical trials.
It always starts with gathering the right data. McLaren will often support businesses to put the correct ‘sensors’ in place so they can gather the information they need. They then advise on ordering and translating this data into a format that can be understood and analysed. This process helps reveal the true causes of a problem, and ultimately allows the optimal solution to be found.
Using evidence in government
There is much the Civil Service can learn from such an approach. It is crucial that the decisions we make are underpinned by solid evidence and analysis, both in formulating and delivering policy. This has long been a Civil Service priority and we have made significant progress.
The Data Science Accelerator Programme is enabling analysts from government departments and agencies to use new techniques and technologies in their work.
What Works centres are improving the collection and use of evidence in vital areas – such as crime prevention, local economic growth and social care – which receive more than £200 billion of public spending.
New kinds of data visualisation are transforming decision-making. We are working to ensure that when widespread flooding occurs, ministers attending emergency COBR meetings can see real-time interactive information projected onto large screens, rather than relying on photocopied maps.
We still have a way to go until this becomes the default approach across the whole of government, but I returned from McLaren determined that we continue to improve our capability in this important sphere.
In the meantime, McLaren represents British innovation at its best. Read more about what they do here.