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Public money diligence ‘could inhibit innovation’

Environment Agency flood defense

Concerns over how to spend taxpayer’s money can make public clients reluctant to risk experimenting with innovative technology, a conference has heard.

A panel made up of representatives from Transport for London (TfL), the Environment Agency, Heathrow Airport and Anglican Water’s @onealliance at New Civil Engineer’s TechFest conference discussed their approach to technological innovation.

Environment Agency director for flood and coastal risk Alison Baptiste raised the issue of trying to be innovative while making sure public money is spent as efficiently as possible.

“There’s the risk of bringing in something new with taxpayers money for something that may or may not work. You have to justify it, which can make it very difficult,” she said.

“It is about how do you assess new ideas and make sure every pound has its value.”

TfL’s director of transport innovation Michael Hurwitz added: “It’s harder to take time out to think who might come along with a better idea.”

Heathrow Airport’s head of IT programme support Guy Miller said: “It is all about ideas, there are no stupid ideas, however silly it might seem, it should go into the mix we need to need to be drawing on everyone’s energy.”

He said it is not just the outcome that is important but the process as well, citing resident concerns about disruption during engineering works as an important factor to consider.

Miller said: “It is about making the project as innovative and effective as well.

“They [residents] don’t want the disruption, but they might want the outcome, it’s about making the journey part innovative as well.”

He added: “Sometimes you have to say to people here is a new way of doing things, try it.”

Anglican Water @OneAlliance director Dale Evans argued strong connections between the organisations are key to encouraging innovation.

He said: “It’s about the connections you make and networks you establish with the right organisations working on a problem then you will get innovation and improvements.

“Secondly it’s the opportunity to try stuff and play around.”

The Environment Agency has used technology to create 3D fly-through views of risk areas that can help residents prepare for floods and cited it as an example of where it had been innovative.

“We work with the community to avoid flood risk, they think ‘what is going to happen when the sea levels rise, what can I do in regards to planning?’”, Baptiste continued, “the technology helps people see what the outcomes are that are going to happen or they would like to achieve.”

Baptiste said that the agency’s approach has changed and the focus is also on how communities bounce back after floods not just on prevention methods, citing the reduction in recovery time between flooding in the Cumbrian town of Cockermouth in 2009 and 2014/15 from nine months to three days.

Baptiste said: “It’s not just about trying to prevent it but what we can do to recover quickly from it.”

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