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Lighthouse | Learning from the parallel universes around us

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It is intriguing to reflect on what becomes newsworthy. “Blue Planet” and David Attenborough were able to create momentum behind plastic waste and has been a wonder to watch.

The public imagination has certainly been provoked with high definition filming and heart wrenching sea creatures. This has resulted in action from across political parties and featured in Defra’s Environment Strategy 2025 launch.

Infrastructure may not be constantly in the news, but there is almost always a story or a situation from another sector where we can learn lessons by spotting the infrastructure parallels. Some recent examples include the debate about the post-Brexit “Blue Passport” contract award, where the tender was awarded to the lowest cost bidder. The debate continues concerning whether a more quality-focused assessment should have considered the value of British jobs or level of security more prominently.

This is a common challenge facing many of our infrastructure clients, demonstrating value for money without resorting to lowest cost tendering. The Construction Sector Deal even goes so far as to pursue how to incorporate a “broader definition of value” into procurement exercises – sound familiar?

Another parallel is obvious with the recent good news story of a “one stop shop cancer centre” for early diagnosis. These centres will be set up with the aim of speeding up and identifying appropriate treatment or giving the all clear much more quickly through a holistic approach to testing.

This means looking at all of the symptoms as a whole rather than carrying out  a series of individual tests to give a binary yes or no. In other words, it’s whole life asset management – considering the intervention in the broadest context of a complex interdependent system.

Finally what can we learn from the rapid expansion and now scaling back of chain restaurants? This rapid growth of chains with anonymised clones shows what happens when you become divorced from the needs and wants of your customers.

Undoubtedly there is a place for chain restaurants but the scale and ambition of the expansion did not pay due attention to demand and the changing needs of customers. It’s another key lesson for infrastructure, particularly given the lead times for asset creation in our sector and the rapid pace of change that technology will have.

We must not lose sight of our customers. To keep ourselves assured that we are best servicing society’s needs, we need to constantly use tools like public engagement and long term demographic modelling, as the ICE did with the National Needs Assessment.

While this game is amusing, it has a serious purpose. We are never too old to learn and test ourselves and our ideas. This will no doubt be coming to the fore when we hear from Dame Hackitt in May with the report from the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety following the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. It is a most pertinent example of learning from outside our sector.

On 1 May, the ICE will launch the Project 13 implementation phase, setting out our vision for a transformed, sustainable industry with better skills, more innovation, and an improved customer focus. As we move towards the launch date, we should also reflect on how our robust plans can be tested outside our immediate sector.

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