Win hearts and minds to deliver positive infrastructure

Political and public engagement, strong diverse leadership, industry collaboration and simplified procurement were key themes in Infrastructure Intelligence’s webinar on delivery, reports Rob O’Connor.

The need for the infrastructure industry to win hearts and minds by improving political and community engagement and communications emerged as a key theme at the first in a brand-new autumn series of Infrastructure Intelligence Live events on Friday 18 September 2020.

The webinar, “Deliver, Deliver, Deliver - infrastructure priorities post-Covid”, saw leading industry figures Rachel Skinner, WSP’s head of transport for the UK, Nicols Group associate Simon Kirby, David Whysall, managing director, infrastructure UK at Turner & Townsend and Jamie Gordon, director - infrastructure and energy at BECG, all bring clear and insightful analysis to the online table.

Continuing industry collaboration, lean governance, and the need to simplify procurement also featured prominently in the debate, hosted by Infrastructure Intelligence editor Andy Walker and organised in association with BECG.

When UK prime minister Boris Johnson gave his “build, build, build” speech in Birmingham earlier this summer, he signalled his government’s intent to place infrastructure investment at the centre of the post-Covid economic recovery plan. Looking behind the hype of the “build, build, build” rhetoric, the webinar wasted no time in focussing on the need for delivery, so that the construction sector can see a real and tangible pipeline of projects that will provide real and lasting benefits to society.

Simon Kirby said the industry had been challenged by government to deliver but, confidently outlining what he described as key areas that needed to be addressed to ensure efficient delivery of future infrastructure, said the challenge could be achieved. 

He pointed to the need for clear project visions, establishing clear and fixed client objectives, lean governance, strong and diverse leadership, predicting and managing complexity, and stressed that politicians should be encouraged to take a back seat in day-to-day delivery wherever possible. “Whether it’s in the public or private sector, any project needs a clear vision,” said Kirby. “And once that vision has been set, politicians need to take a back seat,” he said.

Kirby also warned that projects will inevitably be delayed if clients consistently changed their requirements, but described the post-Covid recovery as a “massive opportunity” to embrace, encourage and attract a new diverse and high quality standard of leadership into the heart of the industry. 

David Whysall agreed with Kirby, saying: “Infrastructure has perhaps never been in the limelight more than it is now. What an opportunity to galvanise the industry!” He said that an increased sense of industry collaboration continues to be a vital part in understanding and overcoming the challenges of Covid, together with a need for a much simplified procurement process.

“There needs to be step-change in procurement capability,” said Whysall. “We need pragmatism and to simplify procurement – it must be capability led. I’m positive that the platform for infrastructure going forward is great, but the industry needs to be open-minded and to continue and improve its new spirit of collaboration,” he said.

Rachel Skinner also pointed to a greater focus on collaboration and said the industry shouldn’t waste the crisis by using Covid as an excuse for delaying change and reverting back to business-as usual. “Standing back and looking at the industry as a whole, the really easy option is to be a like a turtle hiding in its shell and look for reasons why we can’t deliver – but that’s a fast-track to nowhere,” said Skinner. “The middle option is back to business-as-usual. But the other option is to take stock and aim high, to work differently.

“In the short term there are three obvious things we’ve been talking about for at least 20 years,” she said. “Embedding infrastructure for active travel is vital. Establishing strong digital connections and broadband is really important and looking at new working patterns is another major factor in the recovery. All three are vital to support and underpin change for both urban and rural communities,” Skinner said.

Looking further ahead, Skinner said: “Faster, better, greener is something the industry needs to run with, especially ‘better and greener’ – faster isn’t everything.”    

Jamie Gordon said that the industry needs to sell and present itself much better – pointing out how better infrastructure can lead to a better quality of life for individuals – and called for a clear political and community engagement and communications strategy across the sector.

“Build, build, build is great rhetoric but we need more detail and policy support,” said Gordon. “We need to encourage a bigger sense of pride in infrastructure, and to do that we need to build a political and public psyche that is more aware and in tune with infrastructure.”

Infrastructure Intelligence editor Andy Walker said: “The webinar was a great start to our new autumn series of Infrastructure Intelligence Live events. As the industry grapples with a post-Covid business and societal landscape there will be great challenge ahead, but one that the industry can meet head-on by working together and looking outwardly to build political and public support for quality, sustainable infrastructure that makes a lasting difference to people’s lives.”

The Infrastructure Intelligence Live autumn series continues with a keenly anticipated interview with National Infrastructure Commission chairman Sir John Armitt on Tuesday 22 September, before continuing with a key range of events, interviews and roundtables in the coming months. 

Click here to watch the webinar, “Deliver, Deliver, Deliver - infrastructure priorities post-Covid”.

Click here to see details of all of the events in the Infrastructure Intelligence Live series.

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email