For and Against: will London 2012 leave a lasting engineering legacy?
Profile: Sir John Armitt
IET Honorary Fellow Sir John Armitt is chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority. He was previously chief executive of Network Rail and chief executive of Railtrack
Radio presenter and lecturer
Profile: Gareth Mitchell
Gareth Mitchell is the presenter of the science and technology radio programme ‘Click’ on BBC World Service. He is also a lecturer in science communication at Imperial College, London.
The engineering legacy of the Olympics is, I think, not purely a technical one. In this context I am convinced that the real effect that will be handed down to the nation is that the British engineering community has been able to slay the dragon of “we do not do major projects well in this country”. The outcome will be that everybody will say: “Hasn’t this gone well?” To which my response as chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) will be “yes”. What the ODA has achieved is to demonstrate that if you want complex major engineering projects done well then you can have every confidence in turning to British companies. This is because the Olympic ‘big build’ in London has been done within budget and to time. And it leaves a meaningful legacy for London.
The success of the construction project has been the result of the dedication of the ODA, the 40,000 people who have worked on the Olympic Park and Athletes’ Village and the thousands of businesses and suppliers who contributed from across the UK. Together we have delivered a world-class performance. The area around the Olympic Park has changed beyond recognition and I am sure that it will continue to be a fantastic new quarter of London for decades to come.
London 2012 is not the most complex engineering project in the world by any means, but there have been particular challenges here, such as Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre, a classic example of an iconic building that has been created with architecture first and then requires the engineers to make it work.
The stadium itself is fantastic because it is so simple. What everyone worries about when building an Olympic stadium is being left with a giant white elephant. Our design was driven by the question of how you take it apart after the event. And I think that this draws comparison with the modern motorcar. The weakness of the British motor industry used to be that we constantly added bits on, which made the car difficult to maintain. Whereas the Japanese said, “let’s work this from inside out”. They asked how the car was going to be maintained. With the London 2012 stadium, the focus was on how to take it apart, which meant that it was actually very easy to build. The Velodrome is one of the most environmentally successful buildings we have, and in terms of its legacy it will work extremely well. It also works well in terms of its energy and lighting use, which are important factors with any modern building.
We’ve also created 3,000 new homes in London to the highest environmental standards - higher than any other development that’s taking place in London at the moment. In legacy, the plans are already in place to put in another 7,000 over the next 15-20 years, as the market allows. We’ve created some new products through the process of setting objectives - again in the environmental area - for the supply chain.
The ODA has also done something very unusual, which is to create a ‘Learning Legacy’. It’s very rare for a project such as London 2012 to capture the knowledge gained before the project is finished, but we have made a conscious effort to do that so we will be able to pass along information about what worked and what didn’t.
But the real tangible benefit is a reinforcement of self-confidence in our ability to deliver this sort of major project. If you can deliver that confidence to politicians and the wider decision makers, it becomes easier to get their support when we wish to create the next major piece of infrastructure, whether that is something like a nuclear power station or another HS2. What this means is that we know that we have an industry that is able to deliver successfully and that is the key to getting future support and approval to go ahead with big infrastructure projects, delivered properly, on time, within budget and with public approval.
I completely agree with the proposition that the legacy that London 2012 will leave will be a much better developed east London that otherwise would have been very deprived. It will be a physical construction legacy. Lessons from Athens 2004 and Sydney 2000 have clearly been learned.But in terms of the actual blinking lights, sensors, relays and all the grass roots componentry, as well as the IT, communications, measurement and broadcast transmission systems that go into making the electronic backbone of the games, its hard to see what lasting legacy these will have. Evidently, this is a huge project management feat and the technology behind integrating these systems is undeniably amazing. If you look at the way it is all linked together, coupled with the fact that it all has to be 100 per cent reliable, then it is hard to take away from the contractors and the development engineers the scale of their achievement. But to say that a job well done is a legacy is to overstate that achievement.
The Olympics is not an R&D opportunity. The last place you want to experiment is in front of 1.2 billion people. The key to the technological success of an event such as this is reliability, and one of the best ways of achieving reliability is to go with what is tried and tested. A lot of the technology that will be used in timing and measurement will be stuff we already know about.
When variants of the timing technology start to appear in our cars or on our home entertainment systems it will be very tempting to connect that with the games. We will have seen the logos on our screens and the sponsors will want us to deduce from that experience that we are somehow experiencing a digital legacy from the 2012 Games. And the fact is that it won’t be. The R&D behind that product with its blinking light that has found its way to your smartphone is from the providers of the technology who have been involved in the Games, but it will not be as a result of any great leap in technology developed for the Games.
You could argue that for the companies that have competed to be contractors or suppliers, the legacy is more localised than this. The people who have put in the IT and the broadcast infrastructure are the ones who will be able to go forth at the end of the Games wearing the badge of honour that says they were part of it. And for all the vast amount of intellectual property and innovation, this is more about product branding than anything else.
The BBC is publicly saying that London 2012 is the biggest broadcast event in its history. It will be buying in a huge amount of help in the form of contractors, freelancers and production facilities in order to achieve that effort. What its huge investment as the official broadcaster has led to is a colossal amount of business for the British media at large. Just to provide everything from the edit suites, automated cameras, the cabling and connections is a massive logistical process. But even this will not necessarily be an engineering legacy. The legacy aspect for the BBC will be fully stamping its public broadcasting credentials: showing that it was up to the challenge.
From the consumer’s point of view, it is absolutely vital that the technology doesn’t become the story. We don’t want a situation where a gold medal can’t be decided because of a sensor failure, or where the world is wondering what went on the in the Men’s 100m sprint because someone pushed the wrong button.
Technology is a service to the sports, which means that for the people watching this at home, in the pub, online, listening to it on their radios, following it on their iPhones, the legacy of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games must be the games themselves, the human story of the athletes involved and not the success or failure of the technology.
Do you agree?
London 2012 will leave a lasting engineering legacy for the UK
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