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Comment | After a bad 2018 we must make 2019 the year of innovation

Mark Hansford

The so-called Year of Engineering is gone. Let’s make 2019 the year of innovation: the industry needs it.

Getting more innovation in infrastructure is a key driver for the government and our industry alike. One year on from the announcement of the Construction Sector Deal and £170M of government funding to drive that initiative, the structures are finally in place for the industry to scale up its efforts. Yet very few in the industry seem to actually know what these structures are and how to access the funding.

That became very clear at two live New Civil Engineer events in December. The first was the SME webinar, aimed at highlighting how smaller businesses can use technology to supercharge their business.There, two fast-growing small civil engineering businesses highlighted their frustrations that, while they know funds to help innovation are available, the relentless pressure of running the business means they simply do not have the time to stop and work out where to access them.(You can still watch the webinar now, on demand)

The second was New Civil Engineer’s Tunnelling Festival, where Tideway chief technical officer Roger Bailey, through a series of poll questions, rapidly learned how very few in the tunnelling industry – a genuinely innovative sector – understood where to go for innovation.

Less than a handful of the 100-plus audience had heard of the Core Innovation Hub, launched in late November, with £72M of that £170M and a remit to “catalyse” the way buildings and infrastructure are designed, manufactured, integrated and connected within the built environment.

More worryingly, in his final poll question, Bailey asked, two years’ on from the Farmer review that concluded that the industry must “modernise or die”, the extent to which the industry was adapting. Just 8% of those polled felt the industry accepts the need for major change and is acting on it quickly, with most, 58%, feeling change is happening slowly. More than a third (34%) felt the industry was actually in a more critical condition now than it was two years ago.

It served as a stark reminder of the work that has to be done, coming straight after Infrastructure and Projects Authority head of infrastructure delivery Stephen Dance warned that “government hasn’t lost confidence in the industry – yet…”, adding that while neither of the two big stories of 2018 (the government’s Year of Engineering lest we forget) – the delay to Crossrail and the collapse of Carillion – were disasters in their own right, they were seen by the government as signs and indicators.

So to 2019. There are currently some challenges to do with costs on Tideway and some much bigger ones on High Speed 2. With the Tideway project well underway, these challenges will certainly be worked through, hopefully without too much pain for the supply chain.

But with HS2, all bets are currently off. The chairman (who was also Crossrail’s chairman) has been forced out. Chief executive Mark Thurston has taken the unprecedented step of talking to New Civil Engineer not once, but twice in the last month, stressing the need for the industry to drive down costs on the main civils contracts. No-one, not Thurston, or Dance, is saying “or else” but the “or else” is heavily implied.

This year there will be a Comprehensive Spending Review. It is also likely there will be a General Election. The economic nightmare of a no-deal Brexit looms large. Infrastructure, historically, never fares well when cloth needs cutting.

So this year New Civil Engineer will therefore become unashamedly innovation-focused. We will highlight amazing innovations that are already making a massive difference to the way we deliver infrastructure. We will focus on how to get hold of some that £170M government cash aimed at driving even more.

The Year of Engineering is gone. Let’s make 2019 the year of innovation.

  • Mark Hansford is New Civil Engineer’s editor

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