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Hiding behind status quo will kill vital innovation

According to a new report published today by consultant McKinsey, global infrastructure investment will have to increase by nearly 60% over the next two decades from the £25 trillion spent in the past 18 years to £40 trillion.

These are staggeringly large amounts for nations and for businesses around the globe to conjure. A very real challenge, not least given the pressure on available funding and given the fact that much of this investment is likely to be in risky, developing parts of the world.

“To succeed we must embrace change rather than simply hiding behind the status quo as the safe option”

The good news is that the cost of not investing in this infrastructure is likely to be considerably higher - McKinsey, for example, puts the annual cost of US road congestion alone at £70bn. Yet the reality is that if we are to meet this challenge, engineers must lead the process of changing the way we plan, procure, deliver and manage our assets.

The McKinsey report talks about the need to embrace and adopt “proven best practice” from past successes to boost productivity and so save 40% of maintenance and renewal costs. And while I cannot comment on the accuracy of the specific figures they quote, it is clear to me that there is much truth in what this report says.

Introducing and copying innovative ideas must be central to reducing the cost of our infrastructure - as Thames Water is demonstrating with its radical “super-alliancing” approach to procuring work for the next control period.

Yet infrastructure design, construction, maintenance and operation typically remains a conservative business. Doing things the way that it has always been done is generally seen as a safe way to minimise the risks and the potential cost of error.

Hence the difficulty that is so often seen when firms or organisations attempt to break away from the usual way of doing things. The current debate over the safe use of motorway hard shoulders is a case in point.

Here we see a genuine attempt to think and act differently in the way we run our motorway network and to maximise the available capacity without simply building new lanes. And yet the immediate response from many is to reject the idea as a potential safety risk.

Certainly the traditional model of providing an extra hard shoulder in case of breakdown is long-established and works well. But there is also now eight years of evidence to demonstrate that the potential risks in the event of a breakdown or accident of not having the extra lane can indeed be managed.

The result is that, with very little additional cost, the nation’s motorway network capacity can be increased and so congestion reduced.

And on this basis it is just the kind of innovative idea that should be encouraged and shared as it is the kind of best practice we need to boost the UK’s infrastructures assets against the increasingly challenging fiscal backdrop.

The greater challenge will be to meet the world’s infrastructure demands. And to succeed we must embrace change rather than simply hiding behind the status quo as the safe option.

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