Webinar panellists predict big year for infrastructure in 2021

Net zero, social value, digital transformation, local community engagement, diversity, the future workforce and an increased focus on medium-sized infrastructure projects all emerged as key themes at the final Infrastructure Intelligence Live event of the year on Friday 11 December 2020. 

The webinar, hosted by Infrastructure Intelligence editor Andy Walker and organised in association with strategic partners BECG, saw a panel of leading industry figures reflect on a momentous and unprecedented 12 months for the industry and look forward to what 2021 may bring politically, economically and socially and the potential impact on the construction and infrastructure world. 

With the government's spending review and National Infrastructure Strategy signalling a big boost in spending for the construction sector and the levelling-up agenda set to provide local cities and towns with a significant uplift in housing, transport and broadband capacity, could the industry be on the cusp of a boom period in the months ahead?

Lizi Stewart, managing director of transportation at Atkins, focussed on social value, procurement and continued industry collaboration. “Value for money is going to be very important,” she said. “Giving something back to the taxpayer when we’re competing for funds with vital public services like the NHS and schools means more focus on value for money, so the scrutiny will be intense. We absolutely need to spend our precious pounds incredibly well,” she said.

On procurement and industry collaboration, Stewart said: “There’s up to £37bn of contracts to be procured in 2021 - a huge demand. We will likely see delays in major projects and procurement, but we need to get the money flowing. Continued collaboration between the government, clients and industry supply chains has been vital this year. Let’s lock that collaboration in and celebrate it,” said Stewart.

Hannah Vickers, Association for Consultancy and Engineering chief executive, focussed on the importance of medium-sized infrastructure projects and increased local engagement as a vital part of a longer-term recovery. Outlining a landscape where Brexit is likely to have a disruptive impact in at least the first six months of the year, a tightening of public sector investment, lower private sector confidence and a possible delayed post-Covid economic shock for the industry later in 2021, Vickers pointed to increased local activity as a positive pathway to a post-Covid recovery.

“Coming into next year we have long-term ambitions around levelling-up and net zero,” said Vickers. “But 2021 will be a year of medium-sized infrastructure interventions. We obviously have big infrastructure projects in the pipeline, but I think we’ll see the rise of medium-sized infrastructure on a much more local level.

“The proposed new National Infrastructure Bank is positive, intervening in and restructuring infrastructure challenges,” she said. “It’s a good opportunity for the industry to work at a local level and make what we have already fit for purpose. We can unlock a lot of progress and deliver for society. Being much more hands-on in delivering local projects will help generate more local economic activity and create jobs. Don’t be afraid to get stuck in,” said Vickers.

Georgia Hughes, a senior management consultant at Arcadis and chair of the ACE’s Emerging Professionals group, emphasised the importance of developing the future of the workforce and bringing diversity to the fore to help meet the challenges in a period of rapid change.

“2020 has been a year of fast-paced change and 2021 will be no different,” said Hughes. “We also need to look beyond next year and to the next three to five years, starting the decisive decade for carbon reduction. As an industry, we have a huge responsibility to support the nation’s drive to net zero, to provide better quality of life, design in inclusive ways and support the societies that we work in.

“We now need to transform in a variety of different ways. Our clients’ challenges are changing - they are our challenges as organisations as well. The skills and capabilities that we will need in the future are forming and evolving today and we must support our people through this. We need to look beyond our engineers and consultants and look towards a much wider and creative future workforce. What we do is changing. Diversity must be brought to the fore,” said Hughes.

Sue Kershaw, managing director of transportation at Costain, focussed on the continued importance of industry collaboration, diversity and social inclusion all combining to help change people’s lives for the better. “We’ve seen genuine courage and resilience during 2020,” said Kershaw. “There’s been authentic collaboration in bucket-loads right across the sector. The power of that is incredible. Going forward, now is the chance to start again. Collaborative working will be nurtured and diversity encouraged. Post-Covid, we will come out this a much better and more diverse sector.”

Andrew Howard, managing director of BECG, emphasised recovery, risk management and resilience as three key issues for 2021. “2021 is going to be a challenging year. Covid is not going away, and Brexit is going to massive,” said Howard. “Recovering from the economic shock of Covid, having strong risk management and embedding resilience into the industry are going to be three key things for the year ahead and beyond,” he said.  

Net zero, the government’s levelling up agenda, devolution, digital transformation and the UK’s position on the world stage were also flagged up by Howard as key issues for 2021. “Next year will the year when the UK redefines its position on the world stage - and the green industrial revolution is a key part of that,” he said. “The environment is going to be massively significant. There’s going to be a plethora of environmental initiatives in the run-up to COP26. We have a new construction minister with a background of supporting renewables and I think we’ll see a government looking for quick wins, taking positive action, and working with the industry.

“The national infrastructure agenda is massive. Delivery won’t happen overnight, so it’s important the industry is in the room when decisions are made, and that it helps the government choose the priorities,” he said. On digital transformation, Howard said: “2020 has transformed business and there’s no looking back. With a culture change in planning, public engagement is only going to increase. Digital and data management is at the core of future communications.”

Andy Walker, Infrastructure Intelligence editor, said: “Today’s 19th and final event of 2020 was a fitting end to our series of live events that has seen thousands of industry professionals sign up to attend and hear from industry experts on a range of issues. We are looking forward to organising a new series of events in 2021 and to debating and tackling the key issues facing the construction and infrastructure sector over the next 12 months.”

Click here to watch a recording of the “Looking ahead to 2021" webinar.

The Infrastructure Intelligence LIVE series of events is organised in association with our strategic partner, BECG

Click here to see details of the 2021 Infrastructure Intelligence Live series of events.

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