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4 things major construction clients can do to get the best out of new technology

A panel of major clients has agreed that the industry needs to change its working cultures to get the most out of ground-breaking technology.

The panel, consisting of five major infrastructure asset owners, came together during NCE’s Future Technology Forum last week to address the challenge of implementing new technology in construction projects. They were asked how they could create an environment to encourage innovation and to share best-practice from successful project delivery.

Here NCE reports on four lessons from the discussion:

1. The technology already exists; it’s about culture

Expanding on a recurring theme at NCE’s Future Technology Forum, High Speed 2 technical director Andrew McNaughton said major asset owners were the only group that could create the environment for innovation in the supply chain - but that they needed to be flexible to enjoy the greatest benefits.

“The technology normally already exists – it’s out there,” he said. “If you’re going to embrace technology, you’ve got to be prepared to completely refashion your business around what it’s capable of.”

Keeping to the cultural theme, Highways England director Andy Watson said a major driver behind the organisation changing from a civil service organisation to a government-owned company was to empower the supply chain.  

“We’re actually trying to create the environment for the business as a whole and then pass that down the chain to individual leaders to enable them to create the right environment,” he said.

2. Remove the firewalls and focus on the customer

Miles Ashley, programme director for Crossrail and stations at London Underground, said major clients had to have the courage to remove all of the firewalls and blocks to technology companies sharing their information. He used the example of the development of the City Mapper app which uses London Underground data to help travellers make more informed journey decisions.

“It was developed because we released all of our data and it’s a great example of open sourcing the opportunity to bring technology into our business and focus very firmly on the customer,” he said.

“That app has completely changed the way people travel in London. Bus ridership has gone up and the way people interchange between infrastructure [has changed]. That app has changed the value of the existing transport infrastructure.”

3. Relax about sharing the IP

A member of the audience asked how major clients could be encouraged to share innovation when their first instinct was often to closely guard and claim ownership of the intellectual property of technology that has been developed for them. John Zammit-Haber, ETAM innovation manager, network engineering at National Grid said the way his organisation was funded made him more inclined to think that the consumer owned the IP.

“We’re very much encouraged to share [IP] with, in our case, other utilities licensees,” he said. “We have to do that for free because effectively the principal the regulator is trying to get across is, if the consumer has paid for it once, they shouldn’t be expected to pay for it again.” 

4. Don’t be frightened of the mice

McNaughton said the attitude of some major clients towards small tech start-ups was like that of an elephant towards a mouse.  

“We’ve got to recognise as HS2 that we’re an elephant – we’re big, we’re enormous,” he said. “If you’re someone with a great idea, what you’re frightened about is that we will pinch it or we might accidentally stamp on you and you will be squished.

“But what you’ve got to realise is that we’re terrified of you because you’re smart and agile and just when we’ve decided we’re going to bet the house on you, you disappear down a mouse hole and you’re never seen again.”

To overcome this, he said clients needed to reassure these partners. “Get in a commercial relationship which goes ‘we’re buying your brain; this is not a transaction, this is a long-term relationship,’” he said. “We want the brightest and we want them to stick around.”

Dale Evans, director of @One Alliance for Anglian Water said clients were responsible for creating the right culture but the supply chain also had a part to play .

“I think the conditions and the environment that we’re talking about don’t exist until all of the various partners and the supply chain are lined up,” he said.  “But the one thing you can say is you need clients to change their approach to help everybody, so that’s the starting point.” 

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