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The View | The disrupters need to be more disruptive


I recently attended a breaking technology conference where a keynote speaker uttered the truism: “disruption is disruptive”, which isn’t as useless a statement as it might seem at first glance. 

We speak lots about disruption, yet our industry continues to sideline innovation and only improve at a pace that in this day of global warming makes glaciers look worryingly speedy.

Building information modelling (Bim) is finally now starting to bite, although not enough clients are allowing well-tooled teams to explore the full potential. But Bim is exploiting historical technology that would make a successful tech business like Amazon smirk. There is far more we could achieve. We aren’t yet being sufficiently disrupted.

The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) wrote about creative destruction – the endless process of creative destruction at the heart of modern economic development that drives growth, while individual companies are progressively overtaken by new standard-bearers with fresh ideas. In our industry seemingly company change is driven by large companies getting larger rather than new entrants bringing fresh ideas and finding commercial advantage by doing so.

Why is this? What is inhibiting new entrants from revolutionising what we do? What would happen to the Kindle or Uber disruptor entering our construction world, and how quickly could they spread? I’d venture that they would take a very long time to find acceptance.

An essential feature of big infrastructure is its longevity – for good and bad. A large investment in infrastructure provides a great legacy for the nation – lasting for generations and affecting society for generations to come. Wise investments in infrastructure encourage a lower carbon future – less strategic investments often bake in poor behaviour, leading to poorer living conditions for the communities that big infrastructure should serve. It is very difficult to ever retrofit sprawling low density suburbia once it has been created.

There are therefore very valid reasons for not leaping on every passing bandwagon – or as an infrastructure asset owner you can instead repent at long leisure.

There are many examples of hastily bought infrastructure proving to be a very poor investment, for the asset owner and for society: infrastructure that is too large and can’t be supported by usage – think Valencia airport, infrastructure that was far too feeble in its inception and has had to be upgraded even before it opened; think London’s orbital M25, and infrastructure that proved to be ill conceived and incompatible with what our communities want; think the urban motorways still scarring our cities and hurting their inhabitants right across the world.

A crunch approaches in most of the developed world, especially in our large and growing cities, straining to cope with burgeoning populations. Our tolerance for service interruptions in major infrastructure is now very low – we expect all of our utilities to be available 24/7 to fit modern lifestyles.

We need to feel in control of our power, water, data and mobility. We are growing less tolerant of rationing of service provision, queuing, as now frequently happens in our over-burdened transport networks. We are also demanding different ways in how we receive our services, as we age, and as our infrastructure ages with us.

Technology offers an opportunity to step change our provision of infrastructure utilities, when we allow it to.

In the arena of mobile data, providers have been allowed to progressively introduce new generations of technology in exchange for a hefty lump of tax to the government. We all reap that benefit now in terms of almost ubiquitous mobile telephony. Unusually for big infrastructure, a plethora of different suppliers openly compete.

We should allow similar disruption in our other infrastructure utilities – if only we could afford that risk.

We rely on our infrastructure absolutely, in all sorts of ways, and mostly aren’t aware of vulnerabilities and interdependencies of different infrastructure layers.

Yet to make the step change that we urgently need, we need to find a way to being open to one form of disruption – in provision of business services, to save us from being strangled by another form of disruption, over-worked utilities struggling to cope with increasing demands and expectations. 

Tim Chapman is a director of Arup and leader of its Infrastructure London Group

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