Industry

02 NOV 2020

THREE THINGS WE MUST DO NOW TO ‘BUILD BACK BETTER’

Delivering on diversity and inclusion, improving confidence in the industry’s ability to deliver and building momentum behind a green recovery are crucial in the transport sector building back better, says Lizi Stewart.

As we head towards winter, the second wave of Covid-19 is damaging our economy, dominating headlines, and continuing to impact our daily lives. Many of us are finding a new ‘normal’ in how we live and work alongside this pandemic. But for the transportation sector, we have yet to find what that new ‘normal’ might look like.  

Public transport has been decimated, with revenues and consumer confidence hammered. A recent Atkins survey showed that in the transportation sector, only half of respondents expected the industry to recover to pre-crisis levels by Q4 2021

So, in transportation at least, we are on a long road to recovery. But what a long road gives us is the opportunity to reassess, to rethink the way we work and redefine why our sector is essential to the UK - both to people and the economy. What we’re looking at now is not just ‘build, build, build’, but the opportunity to lock in fundamental structural change to revolutionise how we plan, design and operate our transport network. 

For me there are three things we must get right in order to not only recover from this crisis but emerge stronger than ever - deliver on the diversity and inclusion business case, improve confidence in our ability to deliver and build momentum behind a ‘green’ recovery.

Deliver on the diversity and inclusion business case

We have the answer to so many of our problems in our hands. The stagnating productivity of the construction industry, how we level up the UK economy, improve customer satisfaction, deliver better returns on our transportation investments and also deliver the innovation and creativity that ‘Project Speed’ is calling for in accelerating transport schemes.

From McKinsey to London Business School to Deloitte to the McGregor Smith review for government, the evidence is staggering. Diverse teams deliver better financial returns, they are more innovative, they can better spot risk, they have higher levels of customer satisfaction and employee engagement. Yet we seem unable to accept this evidence to transform our sector into one that is more representative of the UK population and we are all the poorer for it.

What will it take for leaders in this industry to take accountability, to create cultures where diverse talent can thrive, to stamp out discrimination and unacceptable behavior, to review policies and processes and create an environment where all of our people can thrive?  

The evidence is also compelling that when an inclusive culture is created every single member of the team benefits, including the dominant majority. They are more able to speak up, share their views and they feel more able to bring their whole selves to work. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain by putting our money where our mouth is and delivering on the business case for diversity and inclusion. Yet what it calls for is leadership and that must come from every executive team in every organisation across our sector.  The time is now; we must act.  For the future of our sector and our country, we need this diversity to help us unlock more from our transportation investments.

Improve delivery confidence

Transportation investment is proven time and again to support economic growth, both on a local and national level. The government has a strong desire to prioritise this investment, yet our track record is holding us back. To receive that precious investment from government, we need to be able to demonstrate we can be trusted and that the client bodies and the supply chain will work together to make intelligent decisions, protect every pound and deliver that much needed value for money.

The government’s Transportation Acceleration Unit is a great step towards accelerating investment and ‘Project Speed’ is the catalyst for rethinking how we do things.  We can learn from projects like the A14 that we can deliver ahead of time and to budget, but this needs to be a systemic level of performance, not a one off.  

For me, at the heart of greater certainty sits how we use data science and artificial intelligence to inform decision making. Too often, decisions are delayed and procrastinated over for fear of getting it wrong. This adds so much additional cost and adds months and years to programmes. We need a more informed approach to give decision makers confidence and support. Benchmarks, predictive analytics, machine learning and the use of artificial intelligence can all help make these decisions easier and more assured.  

Also, integral to improving delivery confidence is how we reduce the cost of schemes through smarter delivery models, automation and a relentless focus on removing waste and non-value adding activity from our sector. The A14, that Atkins led the detailed design for, shows that projects can be delivered to budget, and even ahead of time, as it was delivered eight months early. What was key to the success of this project was its delivery model, one that enabled faster decision making and allowed the client to move quickly to get things done. So, let’s take what worked on this project – off-site construction, 3D and automation, an innovative delivery model – and apply it to other projects. 

Our destiny is in our own hands. The more trust and confidence we can breed in our ability to keep our promises, the more investment we will receive. The economics are on our side – infrastructure investment is good for the economy.

Ensure a ‘green’ recovery

Last, but not least, we need to make sure the projects we bring forward, and the solutions we provide, are in line with meeting our net zero targets. Projects being stalled due to Covid is frustrating; these projects being reimagined to ensure they’re carbon neutral and better for the environment can be inspiring. 

Our priority should be enabling and accelerating ‘green’ schemes. These include electrification of the railway, bringing in more energy efficient trains (e.g. hydrogen), active travel schemes and future mobility projects that integrate connected and autonomous vehicles. 

We can also take this as an opportunity to reassess the balance of our transport network, and create the infrastructure needed for more sustainable transportation. One way of doing this is to increase the amount of freight carried on our railways – 89% of UK freight is still carried by lorries despite rail producing just 25% of the carbon footprint of road freight.

The collaboration to make this happen

There is one thing that underlines all three of my points above, and that’s collaboration. People working together towards the same outcome, stepping forward with new ideas and new ways of working. Never has the need for innovation been stronger in our industry. And never has it been more imperative that we work together. Covid has brought out the best in us when it has come to collaboration in 2020. Let’s lock that in as part of our cultural DNA so that we can ‘build back better’.

Lizi Stewart is managing director transportation at Atkins.

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