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Innovation versus risk: this year’s battle

Innovation is being presented by the country’s construction businesses as the way to deliver the infrastructure the country needs at a price it can afford to pay. We don’t need to cut our fees, we’ll just do it better, is the party line.

And on the payroll of these businesses are people who can deliver that response to demands to reduce the final cost of infrastructure investment. Engineers are born to innovate; their inclination perfectly described by Gavin Davies, the head of Arup’s design and technical executive as “the curiosity to do things differently.”

“I can’t imagine engineers wanting to do the same thing all the time; if there is a better way, they won’t be able to help themselves,” he says.

But many engineers are sometimes struggling to be able to exercise their innovative abilities in the often risk averse inertia of the corporate world.

Despite the promises that innovation can reduce costs, Infrastructure UK has revealed that only 48% of respondents to its Infrastructure Cost Review survey saw encouraging innovation as a priority. And having designs and specifications that provide for innovation was rated as important by just 51% (News last week).

Conversations with many engineers who are not at the top of their fi rms, but who are doing the day to day work, reveal real frustration about the lack of ability to innovate - either in new markets or by changing the age old way things have been designed and delivered.

The layers of internal processes to be gone through and the approvals needed from lawyers, accountants and other professionals that don’t have an engineer’s nuanced understanding of the risks (or the rewards) can sap the enthusiasm for driving through innovation.

Arup and Buro Happold, both companies that have big reputations for being creative, inventive and able to deliver good value quality make a point of keeping innovative engineering at the heart of, and at the top of, their practices.

But it’s not easy. “The bigger a business, the more innovative it ought to be,” says Buro Happold partner Mike Cook. “But in reality that isn’t always the case.

“We are working very hard to make sure that as we grow we keep our innovative spirit. We have put in clear processes to save money and control risk. But behind that there is still an excitement from everyone including our leaders about doing fresh things. You put the systems in place to make it safe to innovate, not to kill it off .”

The right culture is vital and it has to run all the way through a business, says Davies. “We really encourage everyone at Arup to challenge the status quo. But it is really important in terms of managing risk to have the technical expertise to understand the fundamentals that allow engineers to do the things that have not been done before.”

Cook warns that it is hard to replicate or retrofi t an innovative culture. “I know fi rms who think that by buying in one person from a creative practice, that person can make a major impact. And I’ve seen it fail. All that happens is they destroy the person.”

The same could be said of the purchase of fl eeter companies by bigger corporates. The innovative fl air that made a fi rm attractive to a buyer can, if not handled expertly, be swamped by big company back room processes or a lack of understanding about engineering risk within the management structure.

Despite the hurdles, innovation is always possible, Cook believes and says there is a lot of good to come from designers, contractors and manufacturers working together. “I am a great fan of working with a broader spectrum of talent,” he says. It is the best opportunity to make the biggest strides forward.”

Most crucial of all, Davies and Cook say, is early engagement with the client so it can be encouraged to embrace innovation. “Clients have to understand what you are doing, and if it’s new then it is a lot about trust,” says Davies.

“Good innovation means sitting with the client and saying you think you want this but you could
try that, and save, say, 10% on your energy bills into the bargain.” Access to the client is critical.

Cook thinks the UK government should value more highly the quality of the country’s engineering. And likewise if UK companies want to protect their earnings then they need to keep alert on the innovation front.

“We are a major force in world creativity. And braveness is required to be that. Our nearest rivals are not the established nations. If I wanted to be worried, I’d be worried about the Chinese. They appreciate the value of going beyond the rules and with their amazing energy they are going to be teaching us a trick or two.”

Readers' comments (1)

  • David Williams

    At 65 I am looking back on a career of attempt after attempt to be innovative being crushed by management and procedure. Yes, there have been some successes but they have been far to few. Is this just a British disease? What do we do wrong? Do we promote the dull people because they seem to be the safest and least threatening?

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