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What is innovation?

Elspeth Finch

Innovation is a word on everyone’s lips in our industry. There’s a danger it simply becomes a buzzword with little meaning and even less action. However, it will be vital if we are to successfully tackle some of the major challenges around infrastructure and cities that will shape our future.

Going back to basics, innovation is often confused with ideas or inventions, but they are very different. Unless you can transform imagination into something real which creates value it simply remains an idea, not innovation.

Innovators don’t even have to be the ones to come up with the original ideas, they just need the foresight to be able to spot the good ones and develop them to deliver a tangible benefit, whether for clients, end users or themselves - preferably all three.

When it comes to infrastructure there are several drivers increasing the demand for innovation. These mostly fit under one of three headings: boosting efficiency; better risk management; or matching the evolving needs of customers, consumers or a rapidly changing environment. Since 2007, cost reduction has been the dominant requirement for major infrastructure owners who are under pressure to deliver more for less. However, with the economy recovering, the significance of the other two is increasing and in many cases infrastructure owners are looking beyond price and choosing a creative solution that delivers better all-round value.

Innovation doesn’t generally happen in a vacuum and will often need people and companies to work together to apply an idea successfully. In some cases, formal partnerships offer the best approach, so expertise can be combined in a way which encourages a true sharing of information and joined up problem solving. This approach certainly worked for Atkins when we joined with Laing O’Rourke to develop a standardised approach to creating new schools and colleges for future generations in a time and cost efficient manner.

There is no single approach to innovation, but those who are most successful at it do tend to share some common traits. They have the knowledge and insight of markets and emerging trends, risks, latest technology and thinking. They keep their eyes open to developments in other industries and have a solid understanding of the challenges in front of them. They are also prepared to modify and apply this wider knowledge to their specific problem and respond quickly to their environment. Finally, they know when the time is right to pitch or implement their new thinking.

The good news is that designers, engineers and scientists are natural problem solvers. Therefore, the step to being innovators is not as big as one may think, and in many cases people are doing it already and just don’t realise.

So next time you are working on a problem, don’t just think back to your education, training and experience; take the time to look in another direction for inspiration. Most importantly have the confidence and tenacity to take two steps forward and possibly half a step back in order to get things right. The reward will be worth it.

  • Elspeth Finch is Atkins’ UK director of innovation

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