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Out of adversity comes opportunity

27 April 2020

In his latest blog ICE President Paul Sheffield suggests that despite the hardships of lockdown during the current COVID-19 health crisis, the post-lockdown world should offer opportunities towards alternative, beneficial ways of working.

Out of adversity comes opportunity
ICE President Paul Sheffield

We are now five weeks into the lock down in the UK and judging by the gentle easing of restrictions elsewhere in the world where they felt the pandemic before us, there is a long way to go until we revert to some form of normal.

In Hong Kong they first implemented lockdown some 15 weeks ago and although offices and shops are open, air travel is still extremely limited - and for a region with some of the worlds’ busiest airports that is a big change to lifestyle and working methods. Despite the difficulties that many in our industry are facing, we should spare a thought for those in other industry sectors where jobs and businesses have been devastated.

What will the new normal look like? I am quite sure that it will be hard for any manager to deny staff the opportunity to work from home on occasions. I think most of us have become adept at video communication on a variety of platforms and attending virtual conferences and debates - not to mention social occasions with friends and family.

This will inevitably manifest itself in a few obvious ways. Firstly - it could be a real benefit for those who are not comfortable with going into a traditional office place to be able to create the space for more home working whilst truly delivering great value to their business. Secondly - if (on average) everyone worked from home 1 day per week, that just might take 20% off the roads and rail links that we use for our commute - not to mention the 20% reduction in the desk space that we might need in the expensive offices that we occupy.

What does that mean for the investment needs in our infrastructure and office estate, not to mention the distribution of energy, water and retail in city centres?

There is already some information coming through that businesses within our sector are looking at a very different ratio of desks:workers in the future. That will impact design, working environment, demand for new space and the volume of work we might do.

But of course - we can’t do everything from home. Whilst design and management can be done remotely, construction must find ways to improve efficiency and continue to deliver in adversity whilst respecting personal space and hygiene. Why do I use the word efficiency here? There is no doubt that UK PLC will be much the poorer after this crisis clears (and so will just about every other country in the world). We anticipate a reduction in GDP of 35% in 2020/Q2 with unemployment rising to 10% - and these impacts will stretch some way in to the future.

There will simply be less money to go around and developers with plans for that (or those re building/buildings) new shiny office building may just pause to wait and see what demand they see next year and will be cautious about investment returns pushing down construction budgets. Government will be faced with many pressing needs to help industries survive and regenerate after this pandemic and construction / infrastructure will be just one of them competing for that money.

That is why ICE is working with the Infrastructure Client Group (ICG) to support Government in answering some key questions:

  • How will Covid 19 impact our ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and what role should infrastructure play to align the UK to a more socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically robust nation?
  • How has the use of infrastructure changed and is it likely to stick? What does the new normal look like and what should investment priorities be?
  • How do we prove that infrastructure can provide a stimulus and what can deliver the biggest socio-economic impact, what can be planned and delivered quickly?

For infrastructure to be heard amongst the clamour for investment, we will have to prove that we are efficient before we are trusted to spend the scarce resources that will be available. This has been a challenge for us for many years and I feel that progress has been made over the recent past.

Technology, efficiency and productivity have to be the key focus for everyone working in our sector - every day. If we don’t embrace the technologies that are available for us today and use them to make us work smarter then we don’t deserve to be given the budget to build infrastructure fit for the digital age.

The events of the last few weeks have forced us all to use and rely on technology to a greater degree than ever before. Here at ICE we have moved nearly all our activities to the virtual world - almost seamlessly it would appear.

ICE Council are firmly at the pinnacle of the Learning Society activities that we promulgate and have been determined over the last year to create a first class programme of learning events with which to populate their Council meetings and to open them up to ordinary members. The intention had been to hold these in One Great George Street and we had been hopeful of attracting maybe 100 people to participate in those meetings.

We have had to change our plans but I am delighted to report that the first of these lectures took place on 21st April. It was about assuring society that infrastructure is safe and had a first class set of speakers including Dame Judith Hackett who led the review into the Grenfell Tower fire. We had over 1000 attendees in the web Conference - from all parts of the world. A truly remarkable attendance and with some great feedback about the quality of the event - far greater reach than the 100 or so that we had initially anticipated.

You can watch that lecture again below.

We have a second lecture planned for 29th April entitled 'How can infrastructure help achieve the UN SDG's.' We hope for a similar response. My Presidential visits have regrettably been cancelled for the foreseeable future but we are making plans to make them virtual too with a series of engagement events with Members, Fellows and G&S - which judging by the results of the recent Council events might be even more inclusive than the usual face to face sessions.

You always have to find the opportunity out of any adverse events . I do hope you can do so as well.

  • Paul Sheffield, President 2019-2020 at ICE