The first in a brand-new weekly series of Infrastructure Intelligence Coming Out of Covid webinars took place on 29 May 2020 asking “What is the new normal for construction?” Rob O’Connor reports.
Leading industry figures have called for the industry to be both creative and bold in its thinking, as they described the current Covid-19 pandemic as a once-in-a-generational opportunity to make positive changes in the construction and infrastructure sectors.
The calls came during the first in a new series of Infrastructure Intelligence weekly Friday morning Coming Out of Covid webinars on 29 May 2020, which asked “With the easing of the lockdown, what is the new normal for construction?”
Hosted by Infrastructure Intelligence editor Andy Walker, the first webinar saw 110 people hear a top line-up of ACE chief executive Hannah Vickers, Matt Blackwell, digital operations director at Costain, Bentley Systems strategic industry engagement director (UK/Ireland), Mark Coates and Georgia Hughes, senior management consultant at Arcadis and chair of ACE Emerging Professionals, describe what could be the new reality of life after Covid-19.
ACE chief executive Hannah Vickers called for the industry to be both creative and bold in its thinking as she outlined three areas of lasting change - the changing demands on the industry, changing the process of how the industry works and future funding and finance. Looking at the economy of the future, Vickers outlined the government’s key priorities of both creating and protecting jobs in the UK in a new era likely to be dogged by persistently high unemployment.
That, said Vickers, could mean a series of changing demands for the industry, with an increased emphasis on community infrastructure including transport, health and community business hubs – rather than concentrating on major cities and flagship projects.
Changing the process of how the industry works was also on Vickers’s radar, as she outlined the need to make the planning process more dynamic, responsive and resilient – including planning committees meeting virtually, with more flexible and fast-track responses.
Turning to future funding and finance, with the public finances obviously having taken a big hit, Vickers claimed that, although government would never admit it, “PFI could move back onto the agenda”. And, with the government already taking a stake in major industries, both public and private finance could come much closer together.
Vickers claimed that although the government would never admit it, "PFI could move back onto the agenda."
Fellow panellist Georgia Hughes from Arcadis described the current pandemic as a once-in-a-generational opportunity to change the infrastructure and construction sector, saying the lockdown has proved that the industry has been able to change the way it works very quickly.
Looking to the future, she urged that net zero needed to be at the front of the agenda as the country moves out of lockdown - not merely regarded as “just another box-ticking exercise” – and embedded firmly in the design and planning process alongside a drive towards a greener transport infrastructure.
Elsewhere, Hughes also highlighted the need for the industry to retain its emerging skills and talent, avoiding the risk of losing that talent to unnecessary redundancies wherever possible. Working from home was also high on Hughes’s agenda, with companies urged to provide homeworking as an option as the industry recovers from the crisis.
And, in a final flourish, Hughes asked whether the UK should be looking at New Zealand and advocating for a four-day working week to help rebalance the economy.
Mark Coates from Bentley Systems stressed that although office working will not be over for good, Covid-19 had escalated the pace of change and that going back to the way things were, was not an option. Citing a major bank’s chief executive, who described the notion that “putting 7,000 people in a building was maybe a thing of the past,” he noted that over half of the UK’s previously office-based workforce was working from home during lockdown without affecting productivity and asked whether “the game was up for the office as we know it?”
"Putting 7,000 people in a building was maybe a thing of the past ... so is the game now up for the office as we know it?"
Mark Coates, Bentley Systems
Coates said that adopting digital technology during the lockdown had proved that people were much more open to communicating via video and webinars – something that opens up the market for the consultancy sector and was also a great help with achieving net-zero.
Matt Blackwell outlined how his team at Costain had remained very productive during lockdown and forecast an outcome that saw a smaller footprint on sites and removed any previous stigma of working from home. Describing the current lockdown as a huge opportunity to accelerate digital working, he claimed a better home/life balance would also help to attract more talented people to work in the industry.
Also outlining how more homeworking, and therefore less transport pollution, would contribute positively to the climate agenda, Blackwell stressed that the pace of change the industry has seen over just the last eight weeks means there won’t be a return to normal – and that companies who fail to embrace change would be in trouble.
Andy Walker, webinar host and Infrastructure Intelligence editor, said: “Today’s webinar was a great way to kick-off our new ‘Coming Out of Covid’ series, with the speakers all offering an intelligent, authoritative and positive vision of how our industry will emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Moving forward, it is crystal clear that business as usual will not be an option in the months and years ahead but, as today’s speakers said themselves, it also presents a once-in-a-generational chance to embrace the future and seize the initiative to change the industry for the better – with major benefits for the environment, current society and future generations.”
The next free webinar, “The role of infrastructure investment in kickstarting the economy”, takes place on Friday 5 June at 11am. Click here for more details and a booking link.