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Talking Point with Tim Chapman

The UK’s infrastructure building industry faces huge challenges and needs to adapt rapidly if it is to meet the demands placed on it

The demands for lower cost, increased reliability and greater resilience - as well as reduced environmental impact both during construction and operational use - mean that fresh approaches to planning, design and construction are urgently needed. Such changes mean that the construction industry must become more welcoming to the use of innovation than it is at present.

There must also be a more structured approach so that innovations can be applied in a safe, overt way that allows confidence to be developed and the results to be disseminated more widely.

In the past, organisations such as the Building Research Establishment (BRE) and the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) and CIRIA were tasked and funded by government to do just that: push research ideas into practice in a controlled manner and assure that standards kept pace with these evolutions in technology. At that time, the government directly funded most infrastructure-related services and directly reaped the benefits from such innovations in terms of reduced costs in its on-going renewals and upgrade programmes, so those taxpayer-funded investments were well made. Now, as theprovision of infrastructure comes from a plethora of suppliers in each sector, the link of benefit-led investments hasbeen broken - yet the taxpayer
still pays for the same infrastructure services.

“As the provision of infrastructure comes from a plethora of suppliers in each sector, the link of benefit-led investments has been broken.”

To enable rapid change in our industry we need to again embrace a paradigm of innovation. On a single project, the business case for innovation
is difficult to make. But for longer programmes of work, such as those of Network Rail or the Highways Agency, a compelling business case can be made, with innovations successfully trialled on one project directly leading to significant savings and improvements on later ones.

In January 2013, the Institute for Government produced its report “Making the Games - what government can learn from London 2012”. Despite the Games having been used as a catalyst for many fundamental shifts in our industry with the fields of safety and sustainability driven by a clear and forward thinking client, lesson six in this report is hugely disappointing. It proposes to “limit innovation” and “avoid the temptation to use a big project to showcase or catalyse innovation”.

This is surely the opposite of the lesson that our industry deserves?

Government is the construction industry’s biggest client and is the ideal body to reap as it sows and directly benefit from wise investments in construction innovation it facilitates. We need to lobby to ensure that the flame of UK infrastructure innovation remains lit and that the fruits of ingenuity can be showcased and successfully implemented on forthcoming projects.

These innovations are good, both for the UK in terms of providing infrastructure services more efficiently and for the success of the UK in terms of exports.

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