Using data to deliver on sustainability goals

Infrastructure businesses need to embrace data-driven decision-making to improve project outcomes, says Marcus Samphire of Atkins.

The programme management office (PMO) is evolving at pace. Traditionally, the focus has been delivering on time and to budget through best practice PMO services. However, as the digital maturity of clients grows, data is now increasingly being seen as the enabler to organisational efficiency and successful delivery of programmes. Added to this, we are now beginning to see the measure of infrastructure projects shift towards social value and responsible operations. 

Projects and programmes that have a positive impact on society, create jobs, are environmentally responsible and support the net zero agenda are set to gain traction across the industry. This is being influenced in no small part, in the UK, by the government’s recently published Construction Playbook, alongside growing demands from society for greater transparency around how money – especially tax-payer money in the case of public sector projects – is being spent. 

The playbook urges the construction industry to use the collective buying power of the public sector to drive change in the delivery of public works – reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and achieving sustainable outcomes. All contracting authorities are being asked to set out strategies for achieving net zero GHG emissions by or ahead of 2050 for their entire infrastructure portfolio. These should be aligned under an overarching sustainability framework, and systems and processes should be in place to ensure their projects and programmes deliver on the targets set. 

Recognising the design life of public works, contracting authorities are also being asked to adopt the use of whole life carbon assessments to understand and minimise the GHG emissions footprint of projects and programmes throughout their lifecycle. They have also asked that sustainable outcomes be considered alongside the net zero commitment. For example, minimising the use of resources and energy, reducing waste and increasing biodiversity. This supports the government’s presumption in favour of sustainable development and the commitment to deliver on the UN sustainable development goals.

So, how do we as an industry go about achieving this and make sure that projects deliver on their environmental promises? 

The importance of data to challenge and change

From a PMO perspective, the ability to make data-driven decisions will be key. The role of the PMO is evolving from managing risk, schedules, and finances, to encompass a far greater degree of data literacy. While projects often start with a clear objective, as they progress and things become more complex, we now need granular visibility of the project’s ongoing performance, to be able to adapt and flex where needed. The ability to track and measure our progress against a range of chosen metrics, like the ones set out above, means that if what we thought was going to deliver certain societal or environmental benefits isn’t, we can feel comfortable in our decisions to challenge and course correct, before it’s too late. 

Gaining an in-depth understanding of project data will position businesses to thrive in the new era of accountability. With programmes under greater scrutiny than ever before – both from shareholders and the public alike – and public sector organisations that might once have flown under the radar gaining higher public profiles, real-time analysis will be crucial to understanding whether projects are delivering on what they promised at the start. 

Thinking holistically about sustainability goals

When we think of construction projects and the need to be environmentally responsible, our mind might go to a rail or road infrastructure project or perhaps the construction of a major transport hub. But IT capability projects must also take note of these recent government sustainability mandates. 

Data centres, for example, are heavy energy users with some estimates putting them at 1% of the world’s total energy consumption. Meanwhile the importance of data efficiency within information storage systems – deduplication, data compression and thin provisioning of storage resources, for example – especially for large scale businesses, cannot be overlooked when it comes to carbon footprint. 

The public has a powerful voice when it comes to telling businesses what they want and voting with their feet if they don’t get it. And with new government mandates coming into play, it’s time for infrastructure businesses to get out in front, embracing data-driven decision-making to improve project outcomes. 

Marcus Samphire is a managing consultant at Atkins.