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The View | Why infrastructure is now a hot topic

Infrastructure

The cross-party consensus around the need for great infrastructure schemes is attracting many other professions too, says Tim Chapman.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ forray into this field comes in the form of a new report on “the informed infrastructure client” – providing guidance on client management of project requirements, governance processes, development of client organisations and procurement processes that such clients might like to consider.

The report is a good one and concentrates on aspects of clients and projects that we civil engineers often neglect; those earlier processes separated from the design and construction processes in which we usually revel.

When quizzed at the launch, the authors seem to wish that they’d included “intelligent” in the title too – as in expecting clients for major infrastructure to be clever as well as “informed”. And it is very difficult to argue against clients having those two characteristics – especially as we are all also tax payers and so end up picking up the national tab when projects go awry. That’s when they go over-budget and over-programme in delivery, fail to deliver all the functionality that was initially sought, or miss opportunities to upgrade by failing to recognise great opportunities that present themselves, such as by use of emerging new technologies.

In the subsequent discussion on the report’s content, the authors emphasised the need for clients to be decisive – with making bad decisions (presumably due to being less well informed or less intelligent) being preferable to making no decisions – which is something we can probably all agree with, albeit through very gritted teeth. The pace of our mega-projects is relentless and nothing is more damaging than an artificial project halt due to indecision, which usually then leads to recriminations and a degraded delivery environment.

There was discussion about the charismatic leadership needed in large client organisations, with great clarity on the required outcome, to achieve the stated project benefits. Too often the means out-does the end – the project’s own momentum becomes the goal, rather than achieving the broader outcome for society. While in many case they can be synonymous, there are many instances where a single project wrapped up in its own logic conceived sometimes at least a decade before overlooks its ultimate contribution to a changing world.

There was some talk of risk – including reputational risk for clients, but not enough about the risks inherent in the choice of suppliers that might emerge from its procurement processes. The report does acknowledge that “a client never ultimately avoids the delivery risk” – which are wise words and worth emphasising to the legal advisors who seem to perceive that a client can divest themselves of nearly every risk to their designers, suppliers, constructors and others intimately involved in achieving the outcomes. There was some talk of the new role of “integrator”, being considered by some clients such as Transport for London as a way to invigorate their suppliers and enable a broader range of potentially more nimble organisations to partake in the delivery of large infrastructure projects.

  • Tim Chapman is Arup infrastructure director

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