Time for Infrastructure to Perform for People

The last month at Expedition has been fantastically busy! On top of a demanding work load I the had honour of being invited to participate in two Industry defining reports:

The UKSSD report ‘Measuring Up’ assesses for the first time how the UK is performing on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Through my role on the Institution of Civil Engineer’s Sustainable Leadership Team, I contributed to the analysis on how we are doing against Goal Nine: Industry, innovation and infrastructureBuild resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation. The data and research that we analysed for the chapter gained a mediocre amber status, and clearly showed us two things: a] we’re not delivering sufficiently resilient infrastructure and b] the UK lacks the infrastructure and associated skills required to deliver a sustainable economy.

If ‘Measuring Up’ sets the scene on what we need to do, the National Infrastructure Assessment proposes how we might improve our status. The NIA is the first of its kind, and sets out a clear, long term strategy for the UK’s economic infrastructure from 2020 to 2050. It focuses on the role of digital and importantly emphasises the need to link infrastructure with housing to create thriving city regions. The report’s recommendations to government will require the prioritisation of devolved, stable, long-term funding to ensure infrastructure delivers better quality of life for all.

Chapter six of the National Infrastructure Assessment: ‘Choosing and Designing Infrastructure’ is really dedicated to putting people at the heart of decision making about Infrastructure. This a reoccurring theme for me and central to a thought piece I published earlier this year ‘Putting the heart back into urban development’. It builds on the infrastructure devolution work I undertook with the ICE in 2015, which concluded that devolution requires a focus on digital as an enabler to devolved powers as well as, critically, the need to bring infrastructure back to people. Additionally, our winning concept for the NIC Ideas Competition: ‘VeloCity’, is an exemplar to taking a people centric approach to infrastructure by linking strategic infrastructure to communities.

To support the recommendations of this chapter, I was invited by the National Infrastructure Commission to co-author a report on ‘The Value of Design in Infrastructure Delivery’ alongside Petra Marko, from markoandplacemakers, fellow collaborator on the Velocity project. With foreword by Professor Sadie Morgan, this piece of work re-enforces the essential role design plays in the delivery of major infrastructure, and tests theories as to why design is often discluded.

Through case study review and interviews with infrastructure clients and their delivery teams, the research demonstrates the role that design, and design thinking, can play in delivering cost and programme as well as social and environmental value. The portfolio of projects includes the recently completed Oslo Airport, Rotterdam Centraal and the innovative work being undertaken by Anglian Water through their @one alliance partnership.

Common to all the projects included in the portfolio was the importance of client leadership and owning project risks, investing in design upfront to ensure cost and quality certainty, and the multiple benefits that come with an Integrated Approach. None of the projects had design heroes. Design and innovation came as result of collaboration between client, design teams, supply chains, and beyond. The outputs are not grand gestures, but refined solutions born out through testing, prototyping and value engineering in its truest sense.

It is great to see that the National Infrastructure Assessment responds with relevant approaches and strategies to the challenges highlighted in ‘Measuring Up’. The issues raised present us with a real opportunity to train our workforce and transform our infrastructure to meet the great challenges posed by the SDGs and Climate Change. But we need to go much further, and quickly, to develop subnational infrastructure delivery plans which will enable investment opportunities to be brokered.

We also need to push the growing recognition that people are the ‘customers’ of our new major infrastructure, and understand how they feel in, and about, these new spaces. This links back to the importance of applying design thinking, when considering how new infrastructure integrates into communities, so that we don’t miss the opportunities to deliver multiple rather than singular outcomes and benefits. If we take all this in mind, we will deliver greater value to the tax payer and the consumer and enable the UK to be more connected and resilient.