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Debate | Technology's Influence

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Technology is advancing rapidly. The needs of customers are changing and that pace of change too is rapid. So how does the industry manage the way technology is being adopted in infrastructure?

New Civil Engineer, in association with Costain, convened a round table debate involving representatives from government, clients, leading consultants and contractors and key suppliers. The debate took place shortly after the National Infrastructure Commission’s call for evidence to shape the development of its new technology study. This will explore which emerging technologies have the most potential for improving infrastructure productivity.

There was a clear desire to embrace the technologies that are emerging.

Desire to embrace change

“I would prefer to be Über than Übered,” said Costain strategy and business development director infrastructure Tim Bowen, kicking off the debate by describing how the industry should be driving the change, rather riding along with it.

“We need to think how we are going to build capability through the client and supply chain, collaboratively and collectively, and how we innovate to meet the needs of the future,” he said. “What technologies can we deploy to drive increased capacity, enhanced services and improve security of supply?”

Who leads the change?

Highways England executive director of professional and technical services Mike Wilson agreed, but added that while technology has the potential to change the service provided to customers, it may not be the conventional construction industry that capitalises on it.

Mike wilson bw

Mike wilson bw

Wilson: challenge of integrating new tech

“You have to ask: ‘to what extent will somebody else be able to deliver a service on the strategic road network?’” he said. “Are we able to out-Google Google or out-Apple Apple? I don’t think we are, so it might be that it becomes a different type of arrangement where we provide a very good quality asset that others deliver a service upon.”

Agility to change direction is key

The way major infrastructure projects are delivered is becoming more agile, said Highways England technology programmes director Richard Moir. This is helping prevent resources from being wasted on unneeded technology.

“Because technology is coming forward rapidly and we deliver projects in stages, we see the benefit, or not, of a technology, you can quickly kill something or take it forward,” he said.

Data influencing customer decisions

Fujitsu client executive director Andrew Terry said that infrastructure is already there to collect data on network conditions, but what is done with the data once it is collected is the key.

There are privacy issues there, he said.

Andrew terry bw

Andrew terry bw

Terry: How data is used is the key

“The data analytics allow us to understand how people travel, and it’s not difficult to see how useful it is,” he said. “The question is how much data do you want to release to people running services to allow you to have that capability?”

The group also raised questions about whether giving customers ultimate real-time information would lead to fundamental and unmanageable shifts in infrastructure network usage. For example, real-time data on rail delays or a motorway blockage can rapidly lead to local road routes being used inappropriately.

Managing the transition

Highways England’s Wilson added that there is a real challenge ahead as conventional systems transition into new technology. “How can we be agile enough to adapt to new technology while continuing to deliver a service? And then how do we integrate that new technology into an existing system?” Using autonomous vehicles as an example, Wilson continued: “There will be a time where there will be conventional cars alongside autonomous vehicles, but how do we run a network that can adapt to this new technology?

“We build bridges that last 120 years, yet the vehicle fleet changes every 10 to 12 years. Mobile phones are changed every two years, and apps change every day, every hour,” he said. “How do you create an environment when you are running that sort of infrastructure that still allows for those services to change?”

Focus on productivity required

The Digital Railway programme is an example of where the innovation – mainly digital signalling – is well understood and in this case the challenge is to deliver more efficiently.

“We have put a huge amount of effort in to developing the technology, and we know the benefits it will bring, but nobody as yet has worked out how to deliver that technology in an efficient manner,” argued Digital Railway’s ECI lead Stuart Calvert.

Calvert added that embracing a different form of digital – building information modelling and offsite manufacture and assembly – will be key; but it will be disruptive and painful to an industry slow to embrace change.

“The use of digital means to deliver the technology will be the thing to transform productivity, but also disrupt all the other systems and commercial relationships,” he said. “The technologies we want to transform rail travel are there, but the delivery of them is so disruptive. It challenges everything,” he said.

Selling it to the public

A clear risk for the digital railway and other infrastructure programmes is erosion in confidence about delivery.

Horizon Nuclear Power head of C&I systems Cezar Georgescu thought that the public did not trust engineers when it came to the cost of projects. “We suffer from a syndrome of broken promises to the public. It goes back to why engineers are not trusted. We do gizmos very well, but the problem is the public doesn’t trust us when we say something will cost £1bn or £2bn,” he said.

He argued that intelligent data is needed to make sure that efficiencies are made. “If we save 5% on billion dollar projects, then that is significant. It is a badge of honour if we achieve that”.


Highways England’s Moir agreed. “In a project we are always looking at what the benefits are at every stage. We can’t keep driving ahead with projects that we know aren’t going to deliver the benefits we originally thought.

“We need to be braver on how we use project delivery techniques.”

Using Highways England as an example, Moir explained how customers were informed throughout the project. “We are rolling out solutions within the business that show early benefit and early achievement and communicate that.  We don’t have a customer sat in isolation waiting for a big bang solution.

“This is a big part of breaking this notion of always delivering projects late, over budget, and not fit for purpose.”

Factoring in thinking time

TRL director, infrastructure Matthew Sercombe added that it is important for the client to be flexible and adaptable. “They are so constrained in what they do, it is very difficult for them to collaborate actively with the supply chain or do things themselves. With disruptive technology, how quickly can the client respond to that?”

But Highways England’s Wilson argued that it was more fundamental: “We talk about money, contracts and specifications, but the precious commodity is time – the ability to do some thinking before you start.

Encouraging different thinking

Costain managing director, natural resources Alex Vaughan agreed that time to think is important, but so too is creating the environment for people to think differently: “There is time, but it is also the environment you create. If you give people permission to think totally differently, you’ll be amazed where the clever ideas come from – not from the traditional people You need time and the right environment – but also you need a different mix of people”.

Alex vaughan bw

Alex vaughan bw

Vaughan: Create the right environment

And with a different mix of people, the right solutions could well appear.

Costain’s technology director infrastructure James Bulleid thought that the industry was colliding with multiple other industries – much more than before – and this would help it develop.

“We are asking ourselves what is the next technology, but I’m wondering where the Uber ideas come from? The person that knows the answer is possibly sat in their bedroom writing code at the moment.”

At the round table

Philip Andrews Deputy director, RIS futures

Tim Bowen Strategy and business development director infrastructure, Costain

James Bulleid Technology director – infrastructure Costain

Stuart Calvert ECI lead, Digital Railway

Mike Fairlamb Regional manager, Severn Trent Water

Cezar Georgescu Head of C&I systems, Horizon Nuclear Power

Mark Hansford Editor, New Civil Engineer

Richard Moir Technology programmes director, Highways England

Kevin Ridout Principal, analytics, Ofwat

Matthew Sercombe Director, infrastructure, TRL

Andrew Terry Client executive director, Fujitsu

Mark Thompson Chief engineer, Southern Water

Alex Vaughan Managing director, natural resources, Costain

Mike Wilson Executive director of professional and technical services, Highways England

Alexandra Wynne Deputy editor, New Civil Engineer


In association with

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