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Breaking down barriers through the power of regional partnerships

07 December 2023

Christopher Ackland explores the importance of breaking down silos in infrastructure thinking and the role of partnerships in fostering collaboration.

Breaking down barriers through the power of regional partnerships
Nearly 100 infrastructure professionals attended the South West Infrastructure Partnership conference in Taunton, Somerset on 22 November 2023. Image credit: SWIP

As infrastructure professionals, it's easy to get caught up in the complexities of designing, constructing, or managing projects.

Sometimes our focus on a particular sector or specialism may lead us to wonder whether we're the only ones considering the challenges of the future.

We couldn’t be more wrong.

When our focus becomes too narrow, our thinking becomes siloed. We fail to consider infrastructure as a system of systems, designed to support and enhance society, while safeguarding the environment.

We lose sight of the bigger picture and miss important opportunities to share knowledge and co-create.

Infrastructure is interconnected and interdependent, so we must look for communities of people who are also putting their hands up to offer solutions.

The role of infrastructure partnerships

This is where initiatives like the South West Infrastructure Partnership (SWIP) can help. Founded by ICE South West, SWIP unites professionals from diverse infrastructure sectors.

Since its inception in 2017, SWIP has gained momentum and fostered cross-sector collaboration.

It’s created a regional voice on pressing issues in the built and natural environment, including decarbonisation, long-term adaptation, and the development of green skills.

Recently, I participated in SWIP's first regional conference, as a speaker and delegate.

I gathered many valuable insights applicable not only to south-west England, but to infrastructure challenges nationally and internationally.

Christopher speaking at the SWIP conference. Image credit: SWIP
Christopher speaking at the SWIP conference. Image credit: SWIP

Keeping outcomes at heart

One key takeaway was the recognition that decarbonisation is an outcome of how we live, meaning that behaviour change is a vital part of the puzzle.

This includes changing our own professional and personal behaviours, which remains difficult for many to fully embrace.

User outcomes must be at the forefront of our considerations during planning, design, and construction.

So too must the environment. I wonder what we would think if we viewed habitats and ecosystems in the same way we review our monthly balance sheets.

No business can survive without at least breaking even, so why should we treat the environment any differently?

Biodiversity net gain and the use of nature-based solutions are profitable to people and the planet.

Avoiding the pitfalls of political cycles

The SWIP conference also discussed the need for an apolitical approach to infrastructure policy making and funding to avoid the pitfalls of political cycles.

This would ensure that decisions are driven by long-term goals rather than short-term gains.

The conference highlighted the value of inclusive decision-making processes involving the public at an earlier stage, fostering a collaborative approach to infrastructure development.

Recognising progress

As identified in SWIP’s South West Vision 2050, many of the challenges we face are already well understood – the problem is knowing what to do about it.

However, progress was highlighted at the conference through a number of regional case studies.

For example, work at Bristol Port has begun to find ways to repurpose existing fuel pipelines to carry future fuels. These include sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and potentially hydrogen.

The port has established approximately 100 hectares of green space to support and enhance wildlife and associated habitats. This accounts for about 10% of its total land, including woodland, salt marsh and grass lands with connecting corridors.

Then there’s the Community Heat Networks scheme being undertaken in south Gloucestershire by the South West Net Zero Hub.

The project is seeking to assess the use of heat stored below ground to heat domestic networks across communities.

If successful, this work would aim to repurpose abandoned coal mines, using existing infrastructure in a new and much more sustainable way.

The key to successful projects

However, the success of inspiring projects like these depends on two key things: a willingness to pool resources (including budgets!) and bring together knowledge sharing networks.

SWIP is seeking to highlight these imperatives through the Beyond Brunel podcast.

As host of this podcast (now in its second season), I bring together experts from across the South West to talk about the future of infrastructure.

Christopher has presented the Beyond Brunel podcast since its launch in February 2023. Image credit: Fresh Air Studios
Christopher has presented the Beyond Brunel podcast since its launch in February 2023. Image credit: Fresh Air Studios

In the latest episode, we focus on integrated water management with Dave Turner, coastal engineer at Moffatt and Nichol, and Matt Wheeldon, director of infrastructure development at Wessex Water.

Supporting our harmonious system

The challenges we face demand a coordinated, bold, and accountable approach.

SWIP, with the backing of the ICE, provides a place for professionals to come together to break down silos, and tackle challenges collectively.

After all, our industry is more than just a collection of projects, but a harmonious system that sustains and enriches society for everyone.

Listen to the podcast

Search for ‘Beyond Brunel’ on Apple Podcasts or Spotify to subscribe to the podcast.

  • Christopher Ackland, ICE South West senior vice chair and coastal engineer at Moffatt & Nichol