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Infrastructure blog

Delivering infrastructure in the 'new normal'

18 June 2020

President’s Future Leader, Louise Hetherington, discusses what the changes to the way we live and work might mean for the infrastructure we need in the future, following a recent Presidential Breakfast.

Delivering infrastructure in the 'new normal'
What does the new normal mean for infrastructure? Image credit: Shutterstock

The 'new normal'. A phrase which has dominated headlines and featured significantly in conversations for many weeks, yet without clear indication of what it may look like.

The world has been submerged into a situation no-one could have predicted and no-one could truly have prepared for. Yet, now we're here, what can we do to make the best of this situation as we emerge from the pandemic?

At a recent Presidential Roundtable, this topic was discussed in terms of the civil engineering industry, exploring what the potential new normal will mean for the infrastructure we need and how we deliver it.

What infrastructure will need to change?

Through the implementation of lockdown, both in the UK and abroad, an almost overnight shift in travel patterns occurred. And this shift, of both travel type and travel frequency, has had a huge benefit when looking at carbon emissions.

However, as lockdown lifts, it is apparent that social distancing is extremely difficult on public transport and this is making the general public nervous about using such means. Therefore, we need to ensure the ability for people to walk and cycle to work is safe in order to prevent a huge increase of people getting into private vehicles.

It is already apparent that private vehicle use is on the increase in comparison to public transport. So, multimodal transport networks are one way of ensuring people can travel without having a detrimental effect on the environment and congestion. One suggestion, perhaps, is using infrastructure spending to invest in cycleways and footpaths, to encourage physical exercise as a means of transportation in cities.

As well as monumental changes in the way people travel, there has been a huge increase in the number of people working from home. This has led to a surge in requirement for larger bandwidths and a renewed focus on the ability for people to access high speed internet. To keep the economy going and spending relevant, improving connectivity via digital means has now overtaken the need for physical connectivity in terms of demand.

Once we’ve considered how people travel and whether people travel at all, there is also the increase in the need for locality. As more people work from home and offices become desolate, the main hub in cities could well become the hospitals.

There’s a question then as to how we can accelerate the potential to transform office blocks into residential spaces. This would enable key workers to be close to their jobs and further promote the ability to walk and cycle to work.

How must the delivery of infrastructure change?

As previously mentioned, carbon emissions have seen a significant reduction due to the change in travel and reduction of industry, and this is one benefit of the pandemic which many hope to see continued.

Whilst 'shovel ready' projects may have their short-term benefits, in the long-term there was definitely a consensus in the debate that projects should be assessed not just for their economic impact but also their environmental benefits and social value. A focus on environmentally beneficial projects, which also meet the levelling-up objectives from before the crisis, should be at the forefront of the industry's mind now to enable them to be ready in the next few years once ideas have been developed.

And whilst sustainability should be high on the agenda for future infrastructure projects, another large hurdle to overcome on the road to achieving this is the lengthy process of decision-making within the industry. The current stall in 'normal' life could present the opportunity to de-politicise and simplify what is a complicated, lengthy and cumbersome process. The planning process could be simplified and so could the ability for projects to get the green light. This would require new thinking on how infrastructure projects are delivered, including how the initial start-up could be made more efficient and far before the first shovel is considered.

So, what next?

There's no denying it, the world has changed and therefore the infrastructure we need has naturally shifted as well. There's a well know military phrase, "never waste a good crisis", and Covid-19 does present us with opportunities to change both what infrastructure we deliver and how we do it.

We may never be able to accurately predict the exact course of the industry in a post Covid-19 world, but by investing in the right places and using better processes, this will allow us to ensure the recovery from the pandemic is beneficial to us all.

  • Louise Hetherington, ICE president's future leader 2019-2020 & structural engineer, Atkins