Young civil engineers call on industry to step up to innovation challenge

If the construction industry is to respond to the rise of the digital economy, improve productivity and meet the ambitious cost and emissions targets set out in Construction 2025, it must kick start a culture where innovation is embedded at every level, according to a group of young engineers.

  • Updated: 15 October, 2015
  • Author: Kate Ison

In their Innovation: Stepping up the Industry report published today, the seven apprentices of Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) President Professor David Balmforth, highlight examples of infrastructure projects with innovation at their heart, such as Crossrail and the London 2012 Olympic Velodrome. But they say the industry on large has grown used to a risk averse culture and is lagging behind other industries such as manufacturing and aerospace.

The report stresses that there is no “silver bullet” when it comes to creating an innovation culture, instead a collection of changes are needed. It sets out eight “building blocks” that could enable transformation – covering diversity of teams, choice of contracts and knowledge sharing, right through to embracing technology and boosting investment in Research & Development.

Tako Hove, ICE President Apprentice and report co-author commented: “While some leaders have taken the plunge to embed innovation and are reaping the benefits, our industry as a whole has not yet embraced it.

“With the challenges facing us, we simply can’t afford not to – and ‘business as usual’ will not deliver the change required. There has never been a better time to innovate – so we become smarter, faster, more productive, more sustainable and exploit the unique talent across our industry.

“One of the biggest blockers to innovation can be ascribed to our industry culture, and while there is no overnight fix or “silver bullet” here, we can all play our part in kick starting a culture where the value of innovation is recognised across all levels and people are empowered to take forward good ideas.

“Our report sought to identify what was hindering innovation and set out a collection of changes, which if made together, could influence organisations and our ability to innovate. They are the ‘building blocks’ which could turn barriers into drivers and unlock innovation across our sector.”

ICE President, Professor David Balmforth, added: “We talk a lot about innovation in our industry, we celebrate it in awards ceremonies around the world, and there are plenty of examples of innovation in the projects we deliver. Yet innovation is not routine - we struggle to build the processes that lead to innovation into our day to day work, even though we know that we must innovate more if we are to secure the success of the industry in the future.

“At the start of my presidential year I set my seven apprentices the task of understanding why we find innovation elusive and how we might better embed it. Their report findings are informative and practical and by adopting them we can all help to drive forward innovation.”

The Eight Building Blocks to unlocking innovation in the construction industry

  1. People: They are the driving force behind innovation. Strive for diverse teams with people from a range of backgrounds - this will create a wider ideas pool, facilitate collaboration and produce more innovation solutions.
  2. Strategy and delivery: Innovation must be well managed, with a formal process to determine which ideas should be progressed, how and by what timescales. This should also include an incentivising scheme to encourage participation.
  3. Procurement: The greatest opportunities for innovation are during development of the initial concept. Consider contracts that incentivise innovation by spreading the risk and rewards across all parties. Clients can promote innovation by being open minded; stating the desired outcome and inviting creative, alternative solutions rather than being prescriptive.
  4. Knowledge sharing: This avoids reinventing the wheel and repeated mistakes, but also promotes creative thinking; by knowing what your competitors are doing, pushing a culture of “thinking outside of the box” and coming up with even better ideas.
  5. Research and development: The construction industry does not invest heavily in R&D compared to other industries, and other countries. To compete in the innovation challenge, it must step up its R&D activities through partnerships with academia.
  6. Investing in innovating: Investment is a crucial input in innovation. Investing in people, platforms and traditional R&D initiatives will create an environment where innovation can thrive.
  7. Embracing technology: BIM, sensors and smart technology will transform the way we design, construct and manage assets. With the rise of the digital economy, we must better embrace the technology that is already available to us - enabling innovation to move from concept to reality. ICE’s Industry Transformation campaign can help.
  8. Standards and regulation: Regulations don’t have to stifle innovation, there are examples of where the regulator has become the driver of it; encouraging companies to find efficiencies and seek alternative ways to meet requirements. Collaboration with regulators is key.

Download the report

Notes to editors

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) is a leading source of professional expertise in transport, water supply and treatment, flood management, waste and energy. Established in 1818, it has 88,000 members, 25% of whom are based overseas. ICE’s vision is to place civil engineering at the heart of society, delivering sustainable development through knowledge, skills and professional expertise. ICE has long worked with the government of the day to help it to achieve its objectives, and has worked with industry to ensure that construction and civil engineering remain major contributors to the UK economy.