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Setbacks should not prevent us from innovating

Mark Hansford

This is an industry on the cusp of a technological revolution.

Civils 4.0, as we have coined it in this issue, focused around examining the extent to which we, as an industry, are embracing technology and innovation.

Now, this year has been an odd year for innovation. Two of my leader articles this year have already talked about it, and both have been in relation to terrible bridge collapses.

The first was in May, after the Florida International University Bridge, when six people were killed when the under-construction bridge collapsed onto a live highway.

Pioneering bridge

This was a bridge where the university was pioneering its own Accelerated Bridge Construction methodology and was also sold as the first bridge in the world to be built using self-cleaning concrete.

The second was the more recent and even more tragic collapse of the Polcevera viaduct in Genoa. Clearly it was a structure that should never, ever have collapsed. Anywhere in the world. And certainly not in a western European country such as Italy. It is a genuine tragedy, and massive lessons must be learned for sure.

Arguably one of the tragedies is that the bridge’s designer, Riccardo Morandi, was widely held as a genuine innovator and that his bridge was a miracle in its day. That it got to the state it was in when it collapsed says more about what has happened since.

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Polcevera collapse

Both collapses speak volumes about the support, both in design and delivery and then later, in operations and maintenance, that is needed to encourage innovation. Innovation is, by definition, doing the untried; the untested. Doing it is an inherently risky business and needs good support networks.

But we need to do it. The art and the beauty of civil engineering is to innovate and to evolve. It is also what the government is demanding, as we attempt to boost productivity in our sector.

So who is helping us do it?

This issue is published on the eve of New Civil Engineer’s annual

What we must not lose sight of is what Crossrail has done for fostering innovation

Festival of Innovation & Technology, which has been hugely supported by the Knowledge Transfer Network and its innovation platform i3P, This in turn was spun out of Crossrail’s efforts to draw innovation out of the supply chain. Now, obviously, Crossrail is in the news this month.

There are complex reasons behind the one year delay, as we report this month. There are clearly questions to be answered around governance and the grilling its bosses have received from the London Assembly’s transport committee will only be the start. That it could have got to within six months of opening before, first, a £500M price increase was announced and, now, a one year delay called, will be examined in detail in the months and years to come by many a committee and report.

Important lessons

As with Florida and Genoa important lessons will have to be learned, particularly with regard to systems integration.

But what we must not lose sight of is what Crossrail has done for fostering innovation. Its Innovation Forum, which has now morphed into i3P, has provided a £500,000 cash injection, match-funded by the tier one supply chain to make a total of £1M invested.

Ideas that received funding ranged from practical aids, such as an augmented reality app to aid tunnelling and an initiative to reduce the risk of hand injuries, through to technology-led innovations such as lightweight concrete.

We now need the next mega-projects – Tideway, yes, but more importantly High Speed 2 – to take up the mantle. Deliver well, while still innovating. That is really the message.

And let’s not get too down on Crossrail – one year late and £500M over budget on a 10 year project that is genuinely attempting a world first in signalling is not a disaster. Google Berlin Brandenberg Airport if you don’t believe me.

  • Mark Hansford is New Civil Engineer’s editor

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Yes, innovation is vital in the further development of new materials, design methods and construction techniques and practices. The tragic bridge collapses in Florida and Genoa this year both occurred to bridges which at the time of their construction had innovative or unusual features.

    Yet the causes of failure of these bridges were not from innovation, in my immediate view, but were due to inadequate basic engineering design details and proper construction practices. Most civil engineering at both design and site levels relies on Engineers solving everyday problems. Innovation is a nice add-on if it takes account of the basics of engineering.
    ALAN HAYWARD

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