Innovation is vital to the success of infrastructure - we need to be brave

Tim Chapman, Arup

Sticking to the tried and tested may be the safe option, but without new innovative thinking and embracing the risk of failure the industry will never move forward, says Tim Chapman.

A very interesting report entailed “Making the Games” was produced by the Institute for Government for the Government after the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in London.

The report contained 12 simple lessons that government should learn for future mega-projects - most of them most sensible - to help embed the lessons from that amazingly successful programme of projects.

But one of their lessons makes me wince, as it hits to the core of the changes that we need to embed in our construction industry to make it far more efficient.

To improve what we do as an industry, we need to innovate.  To improve quickly, we need to innovate bravely.

Lesson 6 says “Limit innovation – a strong – and counterintuitive – message was to rely on what had already been proved to work as far as possible and avoid the temptation to use a big project to showcase or catalyse innovation”, and then cited the experience of the G4 failure as proof.

More from Arup

I was fortunate to work on several of the Games projects and I found it to be characterised by a strong vision from an unusually clear sighted client, who did encourage innovation – not least in a very courageous approach to spoil recycling on site, which achieved much higher rates than had been achieved before on any large project of its scale.

To improve what we do as an industry, we need to innovate. To improve quickly, we need to innovate bravely. Every attempt at innovation involves a risk that the innovation might not work – nothing ventured, nothing gained.

So the point can be made validly that a one-off client is better off selfishly relying on innovations fostered by others rather than adding to the spread of fresh technology directly.However long-term clients who aim to generate long programmes of work to improve and extend their asset base have a great incentive to strongly encourage innovation, as their future projects should reap those rewards.

Innovation used to be centrally encouraged – great British organisations like BRE, CIRIA and TRL have noble pedigrees for both excellent long-term research on behalf of the industry and a mission for its widespread dissemination to all practitioners.  Their funding models have now changed and so the ability of the industry to harness seed-corn government funds to innovate together is diminished.

Those more curious clients who are clear about their overall objectives, can win most from innovation.  If they are prepared to risk trialling new techniques or products there is much to be gained"

Innovation is left to suppliers to try to devise new angles, but commercial pressures mean that many of those products remain proprietary, as the innovators try to recoup their own investment in its development.

Increasingly clients are focussed on key indicators and the challenge to produce more for less often results in single project mindset with a challengingly low budget and a programme that is too tight, as a means to avoid overspend and slippage. This inhibits innovation, as the tight programme precludes either time to think or time to react to the unexpected events which can emerge when new techniques are trialled.

Many of our current procurement processes thus frequently act as a barrier to innovation.

Those more curious clients who are clear about their overall objectives can win most from innovation. If they are prepared to risk trialling new techniques or products, while carefully measuring the outcome, there is much to be gained for them, on their projects, and on subsequent ones too.

And “clients” should be seen more holistically – in principle Crossrail Line 1 is a single project, but Transport for London has had the vision to establish a tunnelling academy in parallel, so that longer term benefits accrue.  All the main asset owning clients should be instigating long term programmes of research to enable them to meet their fundamental business objectives at lower cost and more reliably – hence an asset owner whose operations are afflicted with routine failures that occur apparently at random should have a long-term vision and concerted research programme as to how such events can be minimised to a carefully thought out limit of tolerance.

Vision and clarity of long term business objectives are needed, plus a willingness to instigate programme of research that transcend short term share fluctuations and tribulations, management trends and even the careers of their staff.

Many infrastructure asset owning bodies face very similar challenges in improving what they do over time. They may find it more efficient to share and even to unify their goals and to pool their resources to force those longer term industry trends, into a broad research road-map. The Green Construction Board’s pan-industry statement of endorsement for the Infrastructure Carbon Review could provide a model for such collaboration, although it remains to be seen how such common research can be coordinated and disseminated.

Einstein said that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. We can limit innovation, and instead trust to good fortune that our projects will be delivered increasingly more reliably, more cheaply, more rapidly, more safely and with lower carbon. That would be insanity!

Tim Chapman is a director at Arup


Hi Tim, Great article. Note also these recent contributions on innovation on Crossrail - https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/new-papers-organizing-innovation-infrastructure-sam-macaulay