This year’s State of the Nation (SoN) report will tackle productivity in infrastructure. In the run-up to its publication this autumn, ICE held a series of virtual workshops to gather member insights.
State of the Nation has been one of ICE’s flagship annual reports for the past 20 years.
Based on extensive research and member engagement, it assesses the ‘state of the industry’. The aim is to stimulate debate and highlight the actions ICE believes are necessary to improve UK infrastructure.
State of the Nation 2022, to be published in October, will focus on improving infrastructure productivity.
How infrastructure is delivered throughout its lifecycle, including the responsibilities of those involved, can improve the sector’s productivity while delivering on its carbon reduction goals.
To inform the report, regional member workshops were held throughout May. The aim was for participants to share their insights on what they thought productivity was and to highlight best-practice case studies for boosting it.
About 80 ICE fellows – all at different stages in their careers and a mixture of clients, suppliers, contractors and representatives from local and regional authorities for the transport, water, energy and gas sectors – attended the sessions.
ICE’s East Midlands, West Midlands, South West of England, Yorkshire and Humber, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland regional branches hosted the events.
What is productivity in infrastructure?
Attendees agreed that defining productivity was difficult.
While speedy delivery within budget is important, measuring productivity shouldn’t just be about the traditional determinants of cost and time.
The sector should also think about the input and output, including minimising waste, reducing carbon costs and adding social benefits throughout.
Value should be looked at holistically, throughout the decision-making process and across all infrastructure sectors.
While civil engineers have a vital role to play in all of this, they cannot improve productivity alone.
Smart working, engaged people, collaboration, clear communication, new digital solutions and improved data sharing are all crucial.
One participant said: “If we could reduce the amount of information and data that gets lost, we could significantly improve productivity.”
One of the key takeaways of the sessions was that needs change at every stage of the infrastructure lifecycle and so project teams should first assess what they are delivering and why.
Where can civil engineers make the biggest impact?
All attendees agreed that it’s in the earlier stages of the planning process that civil engineers could most influence projects. Most notably, in the needs assessment, brief and planning, detailed design stages, and construction and maintenance.
Participants felt that firstly, they needed to ask whether a project was necessary and whether it would deliver what society needed.
The changing needs of clients and the public should be reviewed separately at every stage of the lifecycle.
As one member put it: “There has to be a much greater focus on building in the necessary flexibility in the asset so it can evolve in form and function over time to meet changing requirements and remain productive for as long as practicable.”
A lack of understanding of long-term operation and maintenance requirements was highlighted as a major challenge.
There is currently too much focus on capital expenditure compared with operational expenditure, it was suggested.
With more data available, decision-makers should be better able to understand and assess the use of infrastructure and determine if it needs upgrading.
Best practice for maximising productivity
Still, change will not happen without strong leadership.
Effective allocation of time, delegating accountability to the lowest levels, collaborative team culture and sufficient early-stage planning were given as examples of best practice. Only then can waste be minimised in the later stages.
When working with other organisations, trust and a straightforward decision-making process are key to successful project delivery.
Participants shared their own practices, such as having a pre-mortem discussion about potential risks and opportunities and co-locating the design, construction and planning teams to boost collaboration.
One issue highlighted was repetitive design. Participants felt that striking the right balance between standardised design and creating something from scratch could substantially improve productivity.
“We need to explore repetitive design by taking lessons learnt from previous projects and improving it with every iteration,” said one attendee.
Re-using a design could potentially mean less material and labour. As site conditions and design parameters differ, adapting the old design to new requirements could boost productivity.
There are a lot of existing good practices worldwide that projects struggle to implement owing to UK restrictions.
Participants concluded that our industry needs policy-makers to provide systematic support following a bottom-up approach.