East West Rail CEO, Beth West, explains how a visionary mindset and systems thinking can help future-proof UK railways.
London Underground, DeepMind and The Jetsons.
They would never be regarded as natural stablemates.
They represent completely different industries, were born in different eras and have very distinct purposes, personalities, and identities.
But they all have one important feature in common: a genuinely visionary mindset that looks to the future.
In 1863, the world’s first underground trains started running in London.
DeepMind is pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with artificial intelligence.
And the space-dwelling Jetsons live in a fictional 2060’s future, flying ‘aerocars’ and relying on robots to take care of the daily chores.
While we don’t profess to be pioneers of rail travel, at East West Rail we think about the future a lot.
The final outcome is at the forefront of our minds.
All of us building services for the future have a duty to understand how that service will be used in decades to come.
Too often, we plonk a large infrastructure investment down somewhere and expect the communities to work around it, hoping that they’ll figure out how to use it and deliver the benefits of the investment.
Instead, the industry needs a paradigm shift.
Designing a railway for the future
We need to think and do things differently and deliver a forward-thinking, world-class railway that is fully integrated into its local eco-system.
Why are we building infrastructure and who’s it for?
As a company, we – along with industry, government and our local communities – are challenging ourselves to design a railway for the future at a time when the pace of change in technology, society and the environment is rapidly accelerating.
Plus, the economy is shifting, and budgets are tight.
Starting with the end game
While EWR is not in the business of crystal ball gazing (please don’t come to my talk for the next set of lottery numbers!), we are determined to be in the best place for whatever the future might hold – and to remain capable of evolving as the future itself continues to develop and change.
The team and I have spent a lot of the last year thinking about how we can be the forerunners of a modern railway.
We start with the end game:
- What do we want our railway to be?
- How do we integrate the new with the old, the physical with the digital to reap the benefits?
- How do we not simply put a shiny new overlay onto the old way of doing things?
Moving away from the status quo
Great Britain has a rich history of pioneering engineering.
Among many feats, it boasts the world’s first iron bridge and the world’s first public railway – and today in technology the innovation continues, as DeepMind is testament to.
But much of the engineering sector is in stasis. We need to move away from the industry status quo.
If we don’t, UK engineering is in danger of being left behind.
The world continues to change apace, but in our industry, there is a tendency to keep looking over our shoulder and do things the way we always have.
Reigniting the spirit of discovery
I’m truly passionate about how we reignite a spirit of discovery and reach for that pioneering mindset.
From the outset, East West Rail has been about doing things differently.
This isn’t a new idea – I feel like a lot of us have been saying this for years.
But the problem comes when we try to move from talk to delivery.
It all becomes too hard to change behaviours that have their roots in our Victorian forebears.
Systems thinking at heart
Part of changing our approach is about looking forward holistically, thinking about our future communities and how they may be shaped or constrained.
Our future customers and how they might use our railway.
How we can connect their lives and take them on seamless journeys.
We’re thinking far wider than simply what infrastructure we’ll need to build a railway for today.
Systems thinking in a much wider context is at the heart of everything we do.
Proud to do things differently
We haven’t got all the answers, but we’ve got the advantage of being small and nimble – we can be a test bed for new ideas and ways of doing things.
Over the past ten months I’ve been pushing the team to be atypical.
As a result, the way we work now and the approach we take doesn’t follow the status quo – and that’s exciting.
It’s also hard. But we’re proud to be doing things differently.
The 2023 Dugald Clerk Lecture
For more about how we’re inspired by forward-thinking visionaries behind The Jetsons, London Underground and DeepMind, come and join the conversation at the ICE Spring Prestige lecture: Dugald Clerk 2023 on 27 March.
A panel of experts will debate the impact a shift towards integrated systems engineering has on outcomes and how the civil engineering sector – and the people we serve – can benefit from a change in thinking.Register now