See change as an enabler, not a disrupter, says industry roundtable

Claridge’s was the venue as industry leaders discussed the future of UK infrastructure investment and digital transformation at the latest executive roundtable organised by Infrastructure Intelligence and supported by BST Global. Andy Walker reports.

Two key topics were up for discussion at the latest roundtable event – the future direction of and investment in UK infrastructure and the challenge facing the industry of ongoing digital transformation of business.

Those present said it was important to focus on the wider economic and social benefits of infrastructure investment. Amey Consulting’s Mark Brown thought there needed to be more emphasis on project economics, which he said had been overlooked. “If you take the view that funding ultimately comes from either users of the infrastructure or from government that places a greater emphasis on the project economics, which I think is much overlooked as a credible discipline.

“For users to be funding infrastructure, the planning and design has to provide for their needs and for the government to fund it the planning must also address the wider economic benefits. One of the constraints on matching the funding to the needs of the users or the government is a declining emphasis on project economics,” said Brown.

Neil Bennett of Farrells agreed. “There is a need to think more widely about the economic benefits of infrastructure and who benefits in order to make a better business case. There may then be a way of looking at a much wider range of funders. We also need to think earlier about projects,” Bennett said.

Stress the wider benefits of infrastructure

“There’s a definite need to factor in the regeneration benefits of infrastructure,” said Michael Coombs from Alan Baxter Ltd, “but to get that right you actually have to design it correctly. There are a lot of problems with our major infrastructure where we made decisions and then have a debate about how we implement it, instead of thinking about how best to configure it and design it for the best overall benefit. If we can maximise the economic benefits then that would make the case for funding from more sources,” he said.

 Vivian San

A much more joined up approach was needed, with more coordination and dialogue between all the partners and also a role for government. “You need to be thinking about what society needs, to think ahead and not be reactive,” said Vivian Sin from Hawkins\Brown Architects (pictured above). “A lot of money is still wasted through bad planning and not thinking ahead,” she said.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) had a key role to play in this said Ben Lewis from Barton Wilmore. “The NIC needs to have a more independent and stronger footing,” said Lewis. “We need a national infrastructure plan that has a long-term, cross-cutting outlook because that would give investors certainty because projects would be set in stone and be more bankable,” he said.

Jeremy Owen from Land Use Consultants said the role of the government was crucial. “The government can consider broader social, economic and environmental benefits that a private investor, even a pension fund, cannot do. The government has a crucial role to play, even it is just funding that gap to kick start projects,” said Owen.

Need for clarity on the government's role

While agreeing, Amey Consulting’s Mark Brown said there was huge frustration that the investment community is way ahead of government. “There is a lot of money around. Pension funds and others now ‘get’ infrastructure and they understand that the long-term returns are well worth having, but you still need government to have clarity about its investment policy, clarity about the role of the private sector vis-à-vis the public sector in developing infrastructure and also to provide some security for investors,” he said. 

There was wide agreement on the need for more longer term thinking and a belief that the industry could do more to nudge the government in a particular direction, through better and more coordinated lobbying. 

Turning to the issue of digital transformation, how ready was the industry to embrace that?

“You need to change the way you run an organisation to exploit digital technology and therefore it’s a soft issue,” said Mark Brown. “Technology enables change but that change comes through people,” he said. Haskoll’s John Geeson thought that some public sector organisations were under prepared to deal with digital transformation. “They haven’t upscaled the knowledge and the people that deal with digital and we suffer from that,” he said.

Making digital change happen

 Eduardo Niebles

Eduardo Niebles of BST (pictured above) thought that the industry had it within its grasp to make digital change happen. “It will be an existing player not someone coming in from outside who will make the changes that up-end the industry; it won’t be an Amazon,” he said. “The AEC sector is seen as the least digitised and we are missing a trick. We have to change the economics of the way we do business and see technology as an enabler, not a disruptor,” he said.

Ben Lewis stressed the need for collaboration between the infrastructure sector and tech businesses. “There needs to be more collaboration between our sector and the tech sector because we don’t know what the tech can do.” He also thought that there needed to be more urgency to act. “Look at the technology being used in the nuclear sector. They have innovated because they have had to and come up with bespoke solutions. There’s no big push in our sector but someone will do it first,” he said.

While collaboration was all well and good, it was important to get the relationships right, said Michael Coombs. “Technology in the creative design industries is really interesting but the tech has to serve us not dominate us,” he said. “We need to do the creative thinking too and it has to come from firms who are looking to be more efficient and improve their productivity. As soon as one does it then others will have to follow suit or die,” Coombs said.

There was a widespread view from those present that increased use of technology had the potential to pave the way for new business models to arise in the industry. “We need to change the things we do with the technology and don’t forget that it is the people who are disruptive, not the technology,” said Mark Brown.

Changing the industry's business model

According to Eduardo Niebles “If we don’t change the business model and collaborate more then we won’t change the industry. We need to see a change in the business model where data becomes knowledge. We’re working in a constantly changing environment and it comes down to change management and how you deal with it,” he said.

Those present were clear that change also needed to encompass how infrastructure was planned and delivered and that reforming the procurement process needed to be a key part of creating a new business model. Allied to digital transformation, this could be a real game changer for the industry, they said.

A more enlightened approach to procurement would also call for a quality-based tendering process, rethinking what “value for money” means as well as the adoption of new or emerging technologies. That would make the industry more joined up and deliver better infrastructure. As Vivian Sin said: “We need to be more collaborative and bolder and we need to do it now”.

Roundtable participants

  • Neil Bennett – partner, Farrells
  • Mark Brown – business development director, Amey Consulting
  • Michael Coombs – managing director, Alan Baxter Ltd
  • Brian Furr – director strategic account development, BST Global 
  • John Geeson – director, Haskoll
  • Ben Lewis – infrastructure and energy director, Barton Wilmore Partnership
  • Eduardo Niebles – managing director, international business, BST Global
  • Brian Nolk – commercial director, Victoria Street Capital
  • Nelson Ogunshakin – chief executive, ACE, chairing the meeting
  • Jeremy Owen – managing director, Land Use Consultants
  • Vivian Sin – associate director, Hawkins\Brown Architects
  • Andy Walker – editor, Infrastructure Intelligence 
  • Ray Williamson – regional director, Stride Treglown

About BST Global

BST Global provides integrated business management software solutions for the world’s leading architects, engineers, and environmental consultants. More than 100,000 professionals across six continents and 65 countries rely on BST solutions each day to manage their projects, resources ,finances, and client relationships. The company’s latest offering, BST10, is the world’s first multilingual business management system to be built exclusively for the architecture and engineering industry and made available both in the Cloud and On-Premises. For more information, visit bstglobal.com


If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email awalker@infrastructure-intelligence.com.