Comment

Future thinking is vital and the next generation must take the lead.

Antony Oliver, Infrastructure Intelligence editor

Skanska’s Future Day last week highlighted the need for big thinking about the future shape of infrastructure design, says Antony Oliver.

The opening tweet from last week’s Skanska Future Day – Fast Forward Thinking read: “Today, the future has arrived. Leading thinkers will consider the shape of our future cities at #futureday”.

The fact is we don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about and preparing for business in the future. But as was pointed out at the Skanska event, we need to because the future is going to be challenging.

When I say “we” I am referring of course to the current batch of business leaders. In the frantic drive towards post recessionary growth are they really taking the time to identify the challenges of the future and the shape of businesses required to meet them?

"In future if is can be digitalised and automated it probably will be. That means thinking very carefully about the skills we have personally and in our businesses and about the services we offer going forward."

Fortunately the generations coming through schools, colleges and universities do have a much greater grasp of where we might be heading and a complete acceptance that digital communication technology will be at the heart of it. Whether they are asked is another matter.

Which I think is why the Skanska event was so well received by the business leaders in the audience. It is, after all, rare in the built environment and infrastructure industry that an individual business should organise and invest in such a thought leading event and invite both its partners and competitors alike. 

“It's about looking into the future and having a debate” said Mike Putnam, president and chief executive of Skanska UK.

There are indeed some very big issues to debate and some very difficult decisions to wrestle with – as world leaders discovered last week at the United Nations climate change summit in New York.

It is, of course, not new to suggest that urbanisation is going to be a huge challenge. Yet the prospect of 70% of the population living in cities by 2050 remains daunting. Yet as former BBC economic editor Stephanie Flanders pointed out, already nearly half of the UK's population lives in 15 main urban areas.

That makes the design of our future cities “a very hot issue”, as one conference Tweeter put it.

"We are already immersed in a digital world with jobs and lifestyles increasingly revolving around the “always available” culture."

Flanders talked about the challenge of planning, the North South divide, the issue of whether London should have more local tax powers and the continued reluctance of Treasury to plough public cash into infrastructure – despite the fact that interest rates remains at a record low.

But crucially she also talked about the “entrepreneurial spirit of gen Y” and the fact that the businesses of the future that they will work for will without question be unrecognisable from the asset rich, resource hungry firms of today.

We are already immersed in a digital world with jobs and lifestyles increasingly revolving around the “always available” culture. As technology develops it is clear that effective management of infrastructure will rely increasingly on skills that manage that information rather than simply the structures that we focus on today.

In future if is can be digitalised and automated it probably will be. That means thinking very carefully about the skills we have - personally and in our businesses -and about the services we offer and are thinking of offering going forward.

I am not sure that I know precisely what these skills will be. But I do know that they will be very different from those dominating the current infrastructure business landscape.

Are we properly prepared for that future? I doubt it.

Antony Oliver is the editor of infrastructure Intelligence