Enhancing performance: Creating the step change by connecting, not competing

Bill Mcelroy

Bill McElroy

Director, Infrastructure


Planning for a better infrastructure future

It’s not easy to predict the future. As recently as 2007, the then CEO of Microsoft ventured that there was “no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.”

Today, iPhones allow us to manage our energy consumption, book flights and navigate our way seamlessly around cities.

In infrastructure, we face the challenge of predicting the future every day. Across transportation, energy and utilities, it’s vital that we aim to address not only the issues facing us now, but those which will arise in 10, 20 or 50 years time.

Yet, as an industry, we have in the past been characterised by chronic short-termism. 76 percent of respondents to our survey agreed that the pace of change in society means that some infrastructure projects become obsolete very quickly.” 

Investment in infrastructure has too often been a response to problems, it needs to become a proactive plan and enabler for the future.

People, politics and power

What’s stopping us? One standout result from our survey is that 82 percent believe that political indecision and populist intervention threaten long-term infrastructure planning. In the UK this rises to 92 percent.

Whether or not this is a reflection on Brexit, it is difficult to build support for long-term planning when, at the level of everyday customer experience there is a sense that our existing infrastructure is failing to perform – be it the delayed or overcrowded train, a rising energy bill or water shortage.

There is sometimes little faith that longterm planning and investment will solve these problems and, hence, huge scrutiny of the cost of major programmes. When cost becomes the main driver of political decision-making in infrastructure, we lose focus on the outcomes we are trying to achieve and often fail to solve the problems we set out to tackle in the first place.

It’s right that we are focused on how we deliver infrastructure, but investing in the right infrastructure for the future is even more important. That’s where our thinking needs to start.

Imagining the future

Imagining what the UK could look like in 2030 or 2070 is not easy, but we’re starting to do it.

The UK’s first ever National Infrastructure Assessment was published this year, setting out a vision for infrastructure to 2050. It considers big, difficult questions: how can transport investment not only improve journeys, but unlock new housing, employment opportunities and regional economic growth? How can we balance our energy mix between nuclear, renewables and other sources, while accounting for new demand created by electric vehicles and a low-carbon society?

The Assessment provides credible pointers to how we could respond to these questions, but we need to identify more mechanisms to bring these to fruition. Unlike devolved administrations, England has no agreed spatial strategy for infrastructure to put long-term policy aspirations into practice. Though there are noises in government circles that this too may change.

With a strategic national framework and spatial plan for infrastructure which look many years ahead, the sector – investors, clients, advisors and the supply chain – could focus less on solving immediate problems, and more on delivering a vision of the future.

Government departments – which have too often been fragmented in their approach to infrastructure – could more easily make the enabling decisions that investors need in sectors such as nuclear, renewables and electric vehicles.

We could empower devolved regional government to make faster decisions on how infrastructure is delivered on the ground. With the right governance structure and political alignment, devolved government could help to re-connect communities and the public with these decisions.

What are the biggest challenges facing industry?

table of the key challenges in infrastructure delivery

Forming a united front

  • 27% agree that more cross industry collaboration would enhance the performance of the industry

So what can our sector do to drive change and move from sticking plaster to strategic plan?

We need to use our evidence, expertise and collective voice to shape long-term planning and strategic decision making.

To avoid the astonishingly late decisions we have seen on airport expansion or the HS2 route (which remains ongoing), we need to make the case now for what the UK should look like in the future.

Industry organisations which have the ear of Government – be it the Construction Leadership Council or the National Infrastructure Commission – must put this question on the agenda. I would prefer to see fewer industry strategies, actions plans and initiatives and more joined-up thinking towards clear goals.

Imagine if we put our combined focus and energy behind a single initiative in the priority areas for infrastructure. Let’s rally behind the alignment shown through the updated Government’s Construction Strategy and the themes within Transforming Infrastructure Performance, for example, to demonstrate that change is possible, and the infrastructure sector can be a trusted partner, ripe for investment.

Greater collaboration is essential. Different infrastructure parts of the sector are doing more than ever to integrate and share best practice – look at the Crossrail Learning Legacy or DfT’s Transport Infrastructure Efficiency Strategy. But we also need to collaborate across international borders and across different sectors. Could the tech giants of Silicon Valley or the manufacturing powerhouses of Japan help us predict the future and prepare for it? We need to partner with the Steve Jobs of tomorrow.

If we’re serious about reshaping our sector, we need to start by asking ourselves some tough questions.

Do we have a vision for infrastructure which spans decades into the future? Is industry aligned and collaborating to shape that vision and prepared to deliver it? Are we managing our assets and setting up new programmes in a way that will achieve that vision and the outcomes we want for the economy and for customers?

This article is part of 'Enhancing the performance of infrastructure programmes'

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