Opinion

Let’s make the shift from competitors to collaborators permanent

Moving from competitors to collaborators has put infrastructure on the road to recovery. Now let’s work together to tackle the challenge of industry transformation, say Sam Stacey and Mark Coates.

Four months ago, construction activity in Britain fell at its fastest rate ever. Between March and April almost nine tenths of construction firms (86%) reported a reduction in business activity, leading the IHS Markit/CIPS UK Construction Total Activity Index to record its lowest reading since data was first collected in April 1997.

Last month it was reported that the construction industry expanded in June 2020, defying expectation, and with purchasing activity rising at the fastest rate since December 2015. The ONS output in construction stats for July covers an earlier time period and show that the sector grew by 8.2% in May.

It is clear for all of us that the road to recovery is going to be difficult and will be affected by how well our country copes with future outbreaks of this unprecedented health pandemic.

However, it is very important for us to acknowledge two things:

  1. The recovery in construction activity is not an accident.
  2. The construction and infrastructure sector has a robust roadmap in place for longer-term recovery over the next two years and beyond.

Successful site reopening

This month’s recovery did not simply just happen. Conversations between clients, consultants, contractors, the supply chain and central government have been on-going for months and careful and comprehensive planning has gone in to enable sites to open safely. Plans have been drawn up, tested, re-drawn and tested again. 

The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) has met on an almost daily basis and helped convene industry working groups for each subsector of the industry to cover housing, repairs and maintenance, local, social and commercial construction and infrastructure.

i3P is a key part of the infrastructure governance framework of the UK construction industry alongside the CLC, the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE), Innovate UK and other influential industry organisations) and we are a member of the infrastructure working group co-ordinating the recovery from COVID-19.

Phase one of the roadmap was called restart. The aims of this have been:

  • To restart work on all projects and programmes and increase work to the highest level possible consistent with government guidance.
  • To maximise employment of all those working in the construction industry and supply chain.
  • To minimise disruption arising from contractual disputes.

While it is impossible to forecast the outcome of an unprecedented economic shock like this the achievements of the past three months are considerable and give us good foundations to build from.

It is now more than a month since the UK entered Stage 2 of the COVID-19 Opening Plan when a detailed Safety Guidance Plan was issued by the government for construction sites. The CLC has published a number of safety checklists and assistance plans to protect the workforce and minimise the risk of infection spreading, ensuring sites operate safely.

At i3P, innovations such as the four-person handwash station and pizza peel clipboard have been shared by Tideway and BAM Nuttall to minimise transmission between workers. Modern technology has had a part to play in the opening of sites such as Reactec’s Safedistance solution which alerts site workers if they stray within social distancing guidelines and is being trialled by i3P member Keltbray.

Meanwhile Bentley’s SYNCHRO and LEGION software helps to simulate and analyse the foot traffic on infrastructure assets to help designers to plan for safe social distancing, wayfinding, foot traffic management, and safety and security strategies.

One of the keys to successfully opening sites has been the open culture of co-operation and collaboration between businesses, which for decades had treated each other either as competitors or as transactional, contractual customers and suppliers – rather than partners. The infrastructure industry has taken a grown-up approach to this over the past five years and that groundwork has really paid dividends by the well-coordinated, joined-up approach the sector has taken to this crisis.

Where next?

Over the next nine months the CLC roadmap sees us move into reset mode to establish the future pipeline of work in the sector. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority has already provided a quick win by guaranteeing that £37bn of spending on infrastructure, construction, architecture and repairs and maintenance work is planned in the UK this financial year across 340 procurement opportunities.

Now is also the time for firms to embrace the third phase of the CLC’s roadmap – reinvention. Transforming ways of working in the construction sector has been talked about for years but Covid-19 provides an unmissable catalyst to accelerate the pace of change.

In 2016, when researching the level of digital adoption across 22 different sectors McKinsey scored construction as the second worst industry for digitisation. While in May 2018, analysis by Mace found that if construction was as productive as manufacturing, £100bn would be added to the UK's economy each year.

It is important to recognise that this situation has thrown up unprecedented challenges. However, it has also proven that our industry can quickly and successfully improvise to deliver effective innovation. The much-talked about “luxury” of digital transformation has suddenly become essential in order to roll-out effective remote working for tens of thousands of workers and ensure that planning, design, oversight and site productivity can continue.

Indeed, this insight provided by Mace CEO Mark Reynolds shows the benefits of embracing new ways of working: “While overall output is down, productivity per person onsite is broadly the same, in fact it hasn’t changed at all where we’ve done modern methods of construction.”

Construction and infrastructure firms must seize this opportunity to:

  • Create an innovation culture that delivers efficient products, processes and built assets.
  • Improve productivity, quality and increase output, including by embedding digital and offsite manufacturing technologies.
  • Tackle the climate crisis – to deliver sustainable buildings, we need to have more sophisticated ways of working and higher levels of precision in our building.

Transformation is no longer just a nice to have – businesses need to implement transformative ways of working to improve margins and to survive. We must all accept this challenge and continue to work together to help our businesses discover and embed innovation to ensure as many businesses and jobs as possible emerge from this crisis.

Sam Stacey is challenge director - transforming construction at UK Research and Innovation and Mark Coates is a digital transformation specialist at Bentley Systems. Both are members of i3P, the Infrastructure Industry Innovation Partnership, which provides a mechanism for strategically directing innovation to address the major challenges facing the infrastructure industry. Find out more at www.i3p.org.uk