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Why don’t we share our innovative ideas?

Sharing innovations is vital if UK construction is going to take on the world. So why is everyone so afraid of it?

Because, let’s be honest, for an industry accustomed to doing deals in dark corners, the notion of flaunting your innovations in a public forum still draws a sharp intake of breath from many a contractor.

The recent Bank station upgrade contract is a classic example. Winning contractor Dragados came out publicly - boldly even - to tell the world that its wining solution was to squeeze a travelator through a subterranean corridor that other bidders could not make work. Its rivals claim that their solutions were better, just misunderstood, while refusing to let on what their solutions actually were. Great, we believe you.

But then Dragados is Spanish, and maybe is not so bogged down in the British way. That was certainly the view of project director Danny Duggan - a Brit in a Spanish firm - when he spoke to NCE after the contract award.

“We are primarily a UK team in a Spanish company and the most important thing is that we don’t have the baggage of the UK contracting legacy.”

Ok, competition for London Underground’s contract was fierce, with four bid teams spending upwards of £2M each working in strict isolation for two years to come up with the sharpest idea.

And yes, we hear that come contract award all four solutions were out in the open as the teams presented their solution to their peers in the project review meeting.

But is that kind of behind closed doors innovation sharing enough?

We all think we have this competitive edge. We have to get over it

Murray Rowden, Turner & Townsend

Supplier days and industry forums are now plentiful, but how much innovation is truly shared? Almost all happen behind closed doors, so who is to say? High Speed 2 promoter HS2 Ltd has its first supplier day next month, so it will be interesting to see if it breaks from the trend and allows the public - and press - in to disseminate what is really going on.

Because, surely, this needs to happen. Programme management consultant Turner & Townsend has described this moment as the “greatest opportunity of a generation”. It is carrying out research for best practice body Constructing Excellence into what shape the industry should be in by 2025.

The British government has announced an increase in capital spending of £3bn a year from 2015, which means an additional £18bn of investment in infrastructure over the next Parliament. But that’s the tip of the iceberg.

Global construction is forecast to grow by over 70% by 2025 and the export opportunity is huge. No, not to export man and machine to physically build dams, roads and railways as used to be done, but to export our expertise in taking a project from concept through delivery to operation and maintenance - Olympics-style if you like.

“We are in a global race,” says Turner & Townsend director David Whysall, who is co-author of the Constructing Excellence research. Initial conclusions were shared at an NCE organised event last week. “We need the capability in place. If we get it right we will deliver the UK’s needs and in the process open up the export market. We are starting to get a UK major programmes brand. But it is all about having an integrated supply chain.”

Because the flipside is that there is a real danger of being complacent. The Spanish are already here. So are the French and the Germans. And the Chinese are coming.

“The UK is a pretty easy market to enter,” states Turner & Townsend managing director for infrastructure Murray Rowden and the man heading up the research. “The burning platform here is survival. Because if you can’t get an integrated supply chain from the UK, you might go somewhere else.”

Rowden uses the rise of Building Information Modelling (BIM) as a real example of how the UK construction industry is still operating in silos.

“Why don’t we as the UK have a fantastic BIM solution - end of?” he asks. “Everyone individually thinks they do and so gets caught up in protecting intellectual property.

“We all think we have this competitive edge. We have to get over it.”

So the situation is simple - self-interest has to give way to the bigger picture.

There is hope. Take Costain. Agreed it is one of the losing Bank bidders that is stubbornly refusing to reveal its solution (which it still thinks is the best). But last month it chose the Darwin Centre in London’s Natural History Museum to very publicly highlight the latest innovations it is accelerating to market.

Over 60 clients, consultants, and, yes, the media, were able to talk to the Costain personnel behind the innovations and discover how they could improve the performance of their businesses.

The event demonstrated Costain’s Engineering Tomorrow strategy in action. This focuses on identifying, developing and implementing innovative solutions to the unmet needs of our customers.

And it gives hope to Turner & Townsend’s initial conclusion that, with wholesale change, a 50% increase in efficiency is possible.

Because, the consultant says, an intelligent industry is driven by an intelligent client. And an intelligent client, says the research, produces outcomes not outputs. It demands detailed data about assets and performance, tests new procurement regimes, builds alliances, and incentivises teams to deliver more efficiently and predictably.

The way clients procure is a key issue (see News). As Rowden explains: “There is a big question around what tier one contractors do. How do they get paid and rewarded for what they do? The way we transact has to change.”

Some clients are getting there. Turner & Townsend cites Yorkshire Water, Heathrow Airport, Anglian Water, Crossrail, Highways Agency, Transport for London and Network Rail as taking the lead.

But it does also need the supply chain to step up. “Functional industries go to clients with innovations learnt from other projects or clients. Ours is a bit dysfunctional,” says Constructing Excellence chief executive Don Ward.

It remains to be seen who will grasp the nettle next.

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