Delivering infrastructure in a world city

Atkins | 11 Feb 2015 | Comments

Are designers, builders, clients and planners doing the best they can to develop and promote projects in which the public and government will want to invest? Atkins leads a roundtable discussion with experts in the field to find out.

How can clients and the building sector work together to achieve our collective goal, which is to develop infrastructure projects that benefit everyone and attract the right level of investment from the right stakeholders?

Steve Tasker, managing director of Design & Engineering – London & South East, Atkins:

Professional collaboration is essential – it can change the landscape of delivery – but we need to choose the right partners, ones that are fit to collaborate. How do we create platforms for mutual benefit? Can we truly get to the position where everybody wins? Is it feasible? Innovation comes out of professional collaboration with the right partners.

But first, you need the will of the people to support a major infrastructure project or else the politicians won’t vote for it. We have to ask, is it politically implementable? Have we articulated the project’s impact on people well enough that politicians believe they can support it? And if the investment goes through, have we anticipated the social and environmental consequences, and the modified behaviours and attitudes in a city like London, to actually capitalise on and reap the benefit of such a development?

Phil Wilbraham, development director at Heathrow Airport:

In some ways, it depends where you are. In the UK, for example, we don’t appear to have the will of the people, while in other countries, local mayors and people are calling out for construction.

If you’re in France and you haven’t got high-speed rail coming through your town, you want to know why. In the UK, if it is coming through your town, you want to know why. It seems the debate is slightly topsy-turvy. The political will is needed, as you say, but to get the political will means that people have to realise the benefit and understand that sometimes the greater good is the right way forward.

Richard De Cani, director of strategy and planning at Transport for London:

There is also a recognition that investment in transport delivers benefits that are broader than transport alone, particularly in relation to economic growth and the environment. Transport is a clear enabler of growth, whether in terms of jobs or homes, and the way in which we assess and justify transport has to recognise this broader role. By directly contributing to unlocking development, there is also a link with funding – the role that funding from development-related sources plays in helping to deliver transport infrastructure is now much more important. The Northern Line extension illustrates how a funding and finance package that draws on contributions from those that gain, can fund major new transport infrastructure. However, the process by which transport is assessed and authorised needs to reflect the broader impact; for example, a transport scheme should be justified on all of its impacts, not just the traditional range of transport factors.

Is the industry really able to deliver these huge projects on time and in the right way though? Are clients satisfied?

Phil Wilbraham:

That depends on whether the supply chain is fit and ready to deliver. Are contractors and designers in the UK fit to work together to produce the infrastructure we want? Or should we be looking overseas at a model where the builder takes a lot more risk and provides more innovation, in part because they can afford to? In the UK, it appears risk seems to sit with the client most of the time.

Typically, in a traditional model of contracting, we’re very restrictive and competitive in what we do, which doesn’t allow the bigger players to come in, use all their tools and effectively take over the programme. If we’re not careful, we end up putting a delivery partner between us – as the client – and the work. I think that’s the wrong way to do it; we should be allowing the supply chain to come closer to meet the client.

I think it would be so powerful if the parties involved could actually take more risk from their balance sheet – and were prepared to take on the overall programme and ultimately tell the client how they are going to deliver, with the client believing it; rather than the client always saying what they want and others trying to please them. There are lots of examples in this country where things could have been delivered faster, better and more standardised had the supply chain been more courageous.

Projects like Crossrail, a potential third runway and so on are enormous – and urgent – but are they fit for purpose in the long term?

Mike McNicholas, group managing director of Design & Engineering, Atkins:

Future-proofing is not just about building, it’s about making infrastructure adaptable. The questions we need to ask are, how can we create learning infrastructure? How can we respond with infrastructure that’s designed and built on the day you decide what you want? And how can we use modern technology to think differently and achieve those goals?

Richard De Cani:

It is also about making the right long term decisions that meet future needs. In London we are seeing unprecedented population growth, which means by 2030 we will be a city of 10 million people. To support this level of population and to ensure the growth of the city happens in the right way (so we have not just a bigger but a better London), we need to make the right decisions about future transport needs.

In London we have seen a 10 per cent shift from private transport to public transport, walking and cycling since 2001. To support this trend towards a larger population, we need to continue to invest in vital projects like Crossrail 2 to ensure we have the capacity to meet future growth.

What about intelligent multi-use of assets? Is there enough focus or input that says, we could take this group of assets and engineer it in a different way and get a multi-benefit out of it?

Richard De Cani:

This has been a key focus of our investment strategy for the past 10 years and will continue to play a major part. By transforming and upgrading the tube network or through the creation of the London Overground, we have taken existing infrastructure and – through the replacement of signalling, rolling stock and the redevelopment of stations – generated a major uplift in capacity and connectivity.

The London Overground is a great example of this. Through a package of relatively small strategic interventions targeted mainly at an existing set of assets but delivered as part of an integrated package with replacement rolling stock, staffing and service levels, it has transformed the geography of the areas it serves. It has created new opportunities for travel, supported a major transformation of the surrounding areas and helped support the continued shift away from private car use towards public transport.

There is still more we can do in London to ensure we unlock the greatest potential from existing assets, particularly with the National Rail network and tube lines such as the Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines, which need to secure funding to be upgraded.

Steve Tasker:

We’ve had conversations about applying data gathering techniques to problems such as these – for example, using mobile phone data to establish patterns of travel and the choices people make in different scenarios. Intelligent use of this data can help us plan for the future and allow travellers to make better, more informed travel decisions.

And so it comes back to collaboration – is that the ultimate answer? And if so, can it really be achieved and standardised for the industry and clients alike?

Phil Wilbraham:

It can be done, but most organisations would have to be in a spot before they really collaborated. For example, when Heathrow’s Terminal Five was being designed and built, we were in a situation where we had to find solutions that would satisfy everybody. As a result, we enjoyed some exceptional collaboration and found really good answers, which were then accepted by all the stakeholders, saving us a lot of time and money.

But that’s the challenge: don’t wait until you’re in a spot. Collaboration should be the norm, but most organisations struggle to realise what great people they have around them. At the end of the year, how many people say, “It’s been really hard work this year, we just got there”? Nobody ever says, “It’s been so easy, we’ve hit all our milestones and it’s just been great!” Collaborating makes it easier. Organisations should be able to collaborate by default – everything will get easier as they move forward.

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