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Comment | We must focus on technology

Mark Hansford

This autumn has been a fairly momentous one for the British construction industry.

Three major government announcements about major infrastructure projects had already been given a big boost and now the Autumn Statement has offered further encouragement.

The three big decisions of course concerned Hinkley Point C, Heathrow and now High Speed 2. Sceptics could argue that all three projects have hurdles to overcome before we see shovels in the ground. But all three projects are talking very assertively about cracking on. That’s great news for the industry.

And that’s not the end of it. There was much noise that the government would look to invest in infrastructure as a means to boost the economy in November’s Autumn Statement. And that’s been the case with chancellor Philip Hammond announcing £1bn-plus for road schemes that will help cut congestion and provide quick productivity improvements.

And what of the long-term future for infrastructure? The future that many of you are going to be charged with delivering?

Because while the government rightly talks of spending on the big projects, there is never going to be enough money available to keep building (and rebuilding) our way out of trouble.

The National Needs Assessment, the recently published ICE-led, 15-month study into the UK’s infrastructure needs to 2050, made that very clear. Technology-led capacity boosts or demand-management restraints are where the ICE sees the real wins.

It is good thinking. There’s a very sound argument for using driverless cars to boost capacity and road pricing to manage demand in highways; for using digital signalling to boost capacity and traffic control to manage demand in rail; and for using smart energy grids and local storage to tackle energy needs.

And the government does get this. The Autumn Statement illustrates that with almost £400M set aside to develop future transport technologies and another £450M to trial digital signalling. This represents a fantastic opportunity, one we examine in this issue.

But it throws up a huge question: Is our industry ready to deliver these kinds of solutions?

It would be very easy to see those looming Grands Projets: Heathrow, Hinkley and High Speed 2 and fret about where we’re going to get the people and other resources from. To see that as the big question. To obsess about the “skills crisis”.

But the reality is that there’s no crisis there. The reality is that we have always found the people we need when we’ve needed them (and then, sadly, got rid of them again when we do not). It is what makes this industry what it is – for better or for worse.

No, the real question is where do we do go to get the people that can ensure we deliver those three Grands Projets differently: safer; greener; more efficiently; and with a better long-term outcome for the end-user?

Where do we go to get the people that can capitalise on the opportunities afforded by smart materials – as explored in our supertheme for this month? And then, from there, where do we go to get the people that we are going to need to do the next generation of Grand Projets: thedigital railway; the digital highway; the digital grid?

That’s the real question. And that’s the question we examine in the skills report in the latest (January 2016) issue of New Civil Engineer. It’s also a question that our Graduates of the Year – revealed here – are determined to explore. We’ll hear more from all of them over the next 12 months as we work with them to propagate the ideas that can, and must, move our industry forward; to bring in the skills we need for the future.

And that’s far more exciting than fretting about skills shortages.

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