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Debate | Innovation

Infrastructure project

Who’s responsibility is innovation? How do you create an environment and a culture to promote innovation within a project? How does procurement affect innovation in a project?

At a recent roundtable discussion held by New Civil Engineer and Geodata, experts from a range of fields within engineering discussed just how to get to that utopian world where innovation is accepted, encouraged and costed for from the outset. 

We can’t keep doing what we’ve done before 

The message was clear from London Underground profession head, deep tube tunnels Keith Bowers. He said that the population of London was the highest it had ever been, and that on the Underground, month on month, it was getting busier. “London is now at its highest ever population, on the Underground, last month was our busiest ever month, but that’s a common statistic since I’ve worked at the Underground,” he said.

Infrastructure project

Infrastructure project

Procurement systems can encourage innovation

Change, he said meant work now has to be carried out more efficiently and the industry cannot simply work in the way that it has.

“We’re dealing with huge growth and huge change and that tells us that you can’t just keep doing the things that worked before. We need to think differently and achieve more.”

Network Rail head of mining and tunnels Colin Sims agreed, saying that the challenge was to come up with smarter ideas on how we extend the life of existing assets. 

We’re looking for an end result

As a client, Bowers said that he isn’t interested in the technology, he is just looking for an end result that works. This, means that the procurement of a project could also form a route to innovtion.

“If you think that that means to a client that we’re not that interested in technology, we’re looking for an end result, that the product will deliver as we’ve been promised,” he stated.  “That takes away from just the technology.  Procurement may be just as much of a part of the route to innovation from a client’s viewpoint.

He also went on to say, that communication through the supply chain has to improve to ensure that suppliers come back with what was needed.

Procurement and the role it plays


keith bowers

keith bowers

Bowers: Procurement can foster innovation

Bowers’ commnents sparked off the ensuing debate on innovation and how it fits into project procurement 

London Bridge Associates chairman Bob Ibell said that innovation needs the right culture. “If you have the right culture, innovation will come forward.”

He said that procurement to create the right culture for innovation was all about the client understanding the risks involved. He said many did not, especially as there are so many forms of procurement available. He also said that the same applies to the supply chain and that an understanding the risks and costs would help. 

“Last time for me was High Speed 1,” he said. “If clients are going to take a risk, they have to understand what risks they’re taking. 

“With so many forms of procurement, they don’t; and they don’t understand the costs and the risks involved. The same goes for the tier one contractors and their suppliers. They need to achieve a common understanding. Again the right procurement solution at this level can allow that to happen.”

Procuring Innovation 

Dr Sauer & Partners managing director, partner Gerald Skalla said he wanted to dispel the myth that innovation could only come from contractors and that designers could and should play a bigger role in innovation. But he said that they have to be allowed to do so by the process by which a project is initiated. 

“I don’t think it’s correct to say that innovation can only come from contractors,” said Skalla. “I still think that we are overlooking a big part of the industry which is the designers. They can bring solutions to the table if you let them, if the client lets them. 

“The prequalification questionnaire shouldn’t start with the question, ‘where have you done that before?’. If you start a project with that attitude you won’t harvest innovation.”

Thames Tideway Tunnel project sponsor (east) Nick Butler said designers had more of a role to play in project innovation, but that for this to happen there perhaps had to be more incentives for them and not just the contractors involved.

“For contractors there is an incentive to try to get below the target and make a gain, but there never seems to be an incentive for the designers,” he said. “That for me is a huge missed opportunity as the designers have the biggest opportunity to make the most difference.”

Arup associate director Mike Devriendt said that as a designer he was always looking for ways to innovate within the design phase. He agreed with Ibell, saying that it was important to create a culture to encourage innovation.

nick butler

nick butler

Butler: Designers need incentives

“During the designa and build phase we are continually trying to find innovative ways to do things. I think it’s challenging design standards and creating the right culture to encourage innovation. Dean Street Box on Crossrail was a good example of where the design standards were challenged by Arup and through the use of the observational method, cost and programme savings were achieved.

However this example was challenged by CH2M managing director, tunnelling & earth engineering practice Martin Knights. he said that he didn’t think that this was innovation but simply just a designer applying clever thought to address a particular problem.

Knight said “designers should feel able to challenge codes and apply solutions that meet fundamental principles rather than time serving clauses that don’t allow for innovation and experimentation.”

Innovation and having skin in the game

Knight went on to say that consultants and designers obviously had good ideas, value propositions and innovative approaches that they wanted to share and contribute, but that having “skin in the game” was important, so that they were incentivised to have a more effective contribution. 

“It’s a bit like the English breakfast: the chicken contributes but the pig certainly is engaged!” he said. 

“Clients can do more to create this ethos of recognising and valuing the role of designers. Clients need to get the best out of the supply chain and engage in attracting and incentivising designers. After all, clients are in competition for the best.”

Geodata head of department, software and systems Peter Berger said that he also believed that designers could play an important role, but that it was important if they came up with an alternative design that they worked with contractors to ensure that it worked well and could be accepted in the future.

All parties must be brave 



Dulake: Supply chain members must be brave

HS2 Ltd chief engineer Chris Dulake agreed with Knight, elaborating by saying that all the parties didn’t just have to have skin in the game, but they had to be equally as brave.  

“The important thing is that all parties have equal skin in the game – all have to be equally brave,” he said. 

“I have had examples on Crossrail where our designers, as the employer’s designer have been shy in taking risk and Crossrail have had to step in and take design liability. These are designer behaviours that we have to avoid.”

We shouldn’t be putting workers underground

Talk turned to safety and the role that technology and monitoring has to play in the safety of building underground structures.

klaus rabensteiner

klaus rabensteiner

Rabensteiner: Phase out underground workers

Many around the table believed that the days of workers carrying out dangerous tasks underground were numbered and that future technology would help to address this. 

But concerns were raised about the social impact that the technology would have as jobs would be lost. 

“I’m not absolutely sure about this,” said Ibell. “I know I sound like a Luddite, but does it makes sense to get rid of manual work - from a social point of view?”

“Isn’t that what innovation is?” responded Vinci Construction Grands Projets innovation expert Alexandre Chaizemartin. 

“Reducing the number of people actually doing things. Potentially people have to get a different sort of job, interpreting the data, viewing data to enable an emergency  response to change.”

Rabensteiner agreed and also brought it back round to safety. He said that the role of the worker could be changed and moved from underground to monitoring the equipment from a place of safety elsewhere.

“The aim is not to eliminate the people but they wouldn’t necessarily sit underground,” he said. “They sit in a remote control centre somewhere.”

Around the table

Mike Devriendt associate director, Arup 

Martin Knights managing director, tunnelling & earth engineering practice, CH2M 

Peter Wright associate director tunnels, CH2M/HS2 Ltd 

Gerald Skalla managing director, partner, Dr Sauer & Partners 

Klaus Rabensteiner president, Geodata 

Ries Bouwman Geodata business development manager 

Peter Berger head of department, software and systems, Geodata 

Chris Dulake chief engineer, HS2 Ltd 

Bob Ibell chairman, London Bridge Associates 

Keith Bowers profession head: deep tube tunnels London Underground 

Alastair Cruickshank engineering survey manager, Morgan Sindall 

Matthias Gropp associate director monitoring, Murphy Surveys 

Colin Sims  head of mining and tunnels, 

Network Rail

Nick Butler project sponsor (east), Thames Tideway Tunnel  

Ian Stilgoe positioning director, Topcon Europe 

Alexandre Chaizemartin innovation expert, Vinci Construction Grands Projects


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