The 16 young voices shaping the future of UK infrastructure

The NIC has recently revealed the 16 men and women who will make up its pioneering Young Professionals Panel and Ryan Tute spoke to its members about their hopes and expectations.

As the industry continues to call for a long-term vision and fresh ideas when it comes to tackling some of the biggest obstacles in getting major infrastructure projects off the ground within the UK, efforts are being made to address repeated and stale approaches to project design and delivery.

One unique group which embodies this and provides an opportunity to allow up-and-coming engineers, architects, designers and planners to have a say on the country's future is the National Infrastructure Commission’s Young Professionals Panel (YPP). 

The YPP involves 16 of the best and most enthusiastic young infrastructure specialists who are in the first few years of their careers. It is all about allowing those who want to make a difference have an avenue to articulate their ideas and influence decision makers on how the UK’s future is shaped, with some even possibly delivering the infrastructure themselves over the next three decades.

The selection of the 16 top young professionals has been a long road which started in late November when the NIC announced the plan and those now sitting on the panel have been whittled down from 500 applications. It allows the chosen individuals to not only get a step closer to infrastructure sector leaders but provides a platform for them to have a say on the commission’s work.

Infrastructure Intelligence spoke to some of the panel members to gauge what they expected from the experience and to find out what sectors were of particular interest going forward.

Victor Frebault, a consultant at Arup, believes the panel as well as the NIC has a major role to play in improving the quality of the collective deliberation that lies at the heart of infrastructure development. “The main interests and ideas I would like to bring to the panel include helping development teams, local authorities and other key stakeholders understand social value in relation to the built environment, and what they can do, working together, to improve societal outcomes from new development,” he said. 

“My ambition is for the concept of social value to help make the economic and financial case for better building and so improve the sustainability of the built environment in the UK,” Frebault said.

Charlotte Mitchell (pictured above), an associate at the independent consultancy Quod, based in London, said: “I’d love to use the YPP to shift the professional culture around infrastructure away from cumbersome and inaccessible toward visionary, inventive and collaborative. If we can get the infrastructure industry to take visioning seriously – to really think creatively about the what the future of infrastructure could and should look like – that could have a hugely positive impact on outcomes, from sustainability to user experience.”

To be considered by the NIC, entrants had to be in the early stages of their career and submit a detailed application, with shortlisted candidates presenting to a selection panel including Sadie Morgan from the commission, an external panellist and members of the NIC team. The panel met for the first time in April at the Churchill War Rooms in London to discuss their programme of work.

Others in the group are keen to use the YPP as a platform to explore new ideas and provide fresh perspectives within the UK infrastructure sphere. Based in Birmingham, Alison Caldwell, a principal engineer at WSP, said: “As a civil engineer, I consider, design, influence and explore infrastructure every day, with a keen interest and passion for infrastructure relating to flood risk and water management.  In our ever-changing climate, I aim to harness my experience and passion for water management to raise awareness and understanding of the infinite value of water and bring water to the top of the agenda.”

While Laura Daniels, a project lead for Innovation at UK Power Networks, believes the panel is vital in order to ensure different sectors who work in infrastructure come together to tackle some of the global challenges. “I work in the electricity sector, which is an exciting place to be with the transition to low carbon energy, the EV revolution and the need to electrify heat are all game changers for our sector and the interactions with other infrastructure sectors will be key to design a reliable network to cater for everyone into the future,” she said.

NIC chair Sir John Armitt has hailed the group as an important addition to the commission and hopes the 16 young professionals challenge the NIC as much as possible. “It’s right we give the next generation of infrastructure leaders a say in our work,” Armitt said. “I look forward to working with these young professionals, some of whom could end up designing and managing world-leading infrastructure built as a result of commission recommendations.”

Those within academia have also been welcomed from the start of the process and one member who proves this is Sakthy Selvakumaran (pictured above), a civil engineer/PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge. She says the YPP is an “exciting opportunity” to learn about and contribute towards the future of UK infrastructure. 

“Growing communities face new and increasing challenges. Parallel to this, we see the rapid rise of new technologies and opportunities in new digital spaces,” she added. “Having a National Infrastructure Commission to form a UK infrastructure strategy can help all stakeholders to work together and shape the future of our cities, as well as prioritise investment and action.”

John Bradburn, a senior consultant in the transportation division of SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins business, says he applied as he believes that long term, strategic planning of infrastructure is vital in order to deliver prosperity in the UK and increase the quality of life for all. Bradburn added: “I would like to contribute to this work, by helping the NIC incorporate the new opportunities that Intelligent Mobility and connected and autonomous vehicles bring for making the most efficient use of our transport, energy and city infrastructure. I also want to help the NIC engage with a wider range of people, particularly early careers/younger professionals and harder to reach groups,” he said.

Another member of the panel is Madeleine Kessler, a project architect at Haptic Architects, and she is delighted to have been accepted onto something which provides a unique opportunity to share ideas. “As an architect with a background in structural engineering, I believe that integrating technical engineering solutions with good architectural and urban design is fundamental to the future success of the UK’s infrastructure,” she added.

Martin Plant, a senior geotechnical engineer in the infrastructure division of SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins business, says he has two main areas of focus while in the group - empowering the public to engage more with their local infrastructure to help hold government to account and building deeper collaboration between civilian and military infrastructure professionals.

“I am looking forward to working with my fellow panel members, who have very interesting backgrounds and skills, as well as learning from the Commissioners; the most influential people in UK infrastructure policy making,” Plant said.

The introduction of the panel comes at an important time for the commission as it prepares to publish its National Infrastructure Assessment. The assessment will analyse the UK’s long-term economic infrastructure needs, outline a strategic vision over the next 30 years and set out recommendations for how identified needs should be met. YPP members will be able to look at the detailed report before its official release and get an insight into what areas the commission is targeting for policy-makers.

Rosie Hughes (pictured above), innovation and continuous improvement lead for Strategic Highways Europe, AECOM, says the YPP for her is a “dynamic collective mind” for an infrastructure vision of the future. “I am honoured to bring my social science perspective to the panel and know I will learn much from our range of professional backgrounds collaborating together,” she said. “Technology is going to rapidly reshape how people live and move around so we need interdisciplinary thinking to develop smart infrastructure.”

Finally, Annette Jezierska, co-founder of the transport tech company The Future Fox, says she has two goals in joining the panel which are putting people first in infrastructure development, and helping it adapt faster. “I think the big challenge for UK infrastructure is that the timescales of progress are at odds with reality,” she said. “Infrastructure decision making takes years, even for small street schemes, because they are controversial. If we're going to fully exploit the benefits of new vehicles, mobility services and changing travel patterns in our growing cities, we need to get much faster at adapting our infrastructure,” said Jezierska.

If you would like to contact Ryan Tute about this, or any other story, please email rtute@infrastructure-intelligence.com.