UK motorway traffic

How transport and construction can collaborate to innovate

Image credit: Aleksandrs Goldobenkovs/Dreamstime

What can UK public infrastructure owners and operators learn from the Covid-19 vaccine experience that will help them deliver on the government’s desire to create a science superpower?

As a leader of the industrial age, Britain has a long and rich history of invention and ingenuity. While we may no longer be a manufacturing nation, we still maintain a strong tradition in innovation, and the government is clear that it wants the UK to become a global research and development powerhouse.

We need only look to the life sciences sector and the research that enabled the UK to produce one of the leading vaccines in the response to Covid-19 to see this in action. But, as we emerge from the pandemic, taking lessons from Covid-19, we need to invigorate markets like infrastructure to spearhead a green revolution and truly ‘build back better’.

Government investment in research at universities is welcome. As is the creation of the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency, which challenges the public sector to throw off some of its usual constraints to invest in disruptive research and technology. Without strong funding to pay the top talent and to build world-class facilities, we will struggle to compete. Yet, it is not funding alone that drives change and modernisation. There must be a common vision, mission and unified purpose. Without this, innovation stalls.

A case in point is that of the infrastructure and construction sectors. Risk averse, due to business models built around low profit margins and surety of cash flow, clients and suppliers often stay in their comfort zone, even if it’s inefficient. Better to be sluggish and a little wasteful, but build something they are confident will stand the test of time.

None of this is news, nor unique to civil engineering or construction. Prior to the pandemic, vaccines took maybe six or seven years to get into production; however, we saw the lightning speed by which the Covid-19 vaccine moved from labs to left arms. So what can public infrastructure owners and operators like National Highways learn from the Covid-19 vaccine experience? How do we deliver on the government’s desire to see the UK as a science superpower?

One thing is for certain: we don’t want to wait until a major disaster forces us together. Arguably, the climate emergency is pushing us towards such a precipice. But we can, and must, learn from the pandemic experience to accelerate the pace of change.

To overcome the inertia of the familiar, we need to be inspired by something greater than ourselves. This will inspire the sector to overcome any short-term pain in the interest of longer-term gain. Importantly, this must benefit all the players in the system, or show them a clear exit route. This is where government-led organisations like National Highways can step in, by setting a clear agenda and direction for change, and bringing together those that can make it happen.

The need to decarbonise construction presents an opportunity: a clear mission, with targets (even if the means of tracking progress is still an emerging system) and something both clients and contractors can agree to is key. While driving productivity improvements always leaves the suspicion that someone is being short-changed, uniting to save the planet is not only more inspiring, but makes shareholders feel better, generating a positive feedback loop.

At National Highways, our ambitious plan for net-zero highways sets clear targets for reaching net zero in our construction and maintenance activities by 2040. In a world where concrete, steel and asphalt are ubiquitous, and new materials take six or seven years to approve for use on the road, this is a challenge. Yet, through working together with universities, manufacturers, construction companies and standards bodies, we hope we can make the unthinkable, achievable.

One of the early glimmers of hope during the pandemic was the speed with which the structure and genetic code of the new coronavirus was unravelled and shared across the global scientific community. Being open with data in a safe and secure way, and welcoming in the researchers and inventors, can also achieve huge gains. At National Highways, we can apply this to construction and maintenance practices when operating the network efficiently and providing better, more informed journeys to travellers.

Our Digital Roads Vision and Digital, Data and Technology Strategy acknowledge the power of sharing data. For example on planned roadworks, with those who are best placed to use it and share it, like journey planning companies. Collating accurate, near-to-live information on the road condition will help to coordinate maintenance activities to minimise the number of cones on the road. Bad news for cones, but good news for drivers and our workforce.

Construction also remains a largely paper-based industry, with limited capturing of information digitally on phones and tablets. This also speaks to a gap for digital and data skills, including cyber security, to make the most of the opportunities technology presents.  This must be a key focus in the coming decade, and organisations like National Highways can build on work with schools and universities to create interest in the sector and attract, develop and retain top talent.

Just as we want to feel safe about what we put into our bodies, we want to feel safe in our cars and on our roads. Standards and specifications for road materials and design requirements are typically stringent and err on the side of caution, with it typically taking more than nine years for a new solution to go from research to road – not so different to pharmaceutical timescales. We will need to expedite certain processes behind adapting to new technology or using new, low-carbon materials, for example.

Production of the Covid-19 vaccine saw many parts of the process running in parallel that would typically have been sequential. The willingness of public volunteers was another success factor.  Within infrastructure, it is surely possible to work with manufacturers to speed up the testing and assurance process. Perhaps through investment in testing facilities, or managing the risk of a new material not working as planned when being piloted in a real-world environment.

National Highways’ work to digitise its design instructions, the bible for all UK road designers, means that much of the process can be automated. That being said, the unprecedented need for rapid change to meet net zero, means even more will need to be done to accelerate this assurance system.

Finally, the common ground between civil engineering and rapid innovation is that things need to be built on solid foundations. There’s an adage that it takes 20 years to make an overnight success. One of the strengths of the construction and infrastructure industries is that there is no shortage of collaborative forums through which to share knowledge. National Highways has been fortunate in securing consistent funding for research and innovation. Ideas will flourish with a strong academic community, grounded in high-quality research with stable funding. A fresh supply of new talent, as well as sustained industrial support, are also essential ingredients.

Annette Pass is head of Innovation at National Highways.

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