Encouraging collaboration across the infrastructure ecosystem

A collaboration culture and diversity of thought are vital if the infrastructure sector is to achieve improved digital innovation, says Mott MacDonald’s George Holder.

Our recent Innovation whitepaper, Moving from base camp to mountain peak: innovating in the built environment, explored the challenges of meaningfully managing innovation to achieve improved outcomes in regulated industries such as energy, water and transport. 

Based on our research, several recommendations were made to support industry in implementing digital innovation at pace and scale and reap the benefits of doing so. To ‘collaborate across the ecosystem’ is one of these crucial initial steps.

Diversity of thought matters. Involving a broad range of stakeholders from inside and outside an organisation contributes to a systems-thinking approach and can be the difference between failure and success. In the same way there are not ‘digital only’ projects, we recognise all projects require collaboration.

Mapping out the ecosystem effectively is also vital, analysing how value is generated by each participant and establishing which role each should play, be that as orchestrator or key player in one or several regions of the map.

Mission-oriented collaboration

An ecosystem for innovating in infrastructure is formed of stakeholders from a variety of disciplines, with specific capabilities that complement each other to improve total generated value. It is not hierarchically controlled, like a traditional supply chain, but is built and evolved from the interactions between participating organisations.

Although not typically governed by contractual agreements, there are still ways of creating cohesion among stakeholders. These could be more formal ‘rules’ that are faced by all parties, such as product or data standards, or less formal ‘missions’, where a strong cause such as the decarbonisation of energy encourages a self-sustaining environment of collaboration. 

We are already seeing examples of such cohesion within infrastructure. The Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) notes that we should collaborate on the ‘rules of the game’ for highly technical initiatives such as the national digital twin via the Gemini principles.

Collaborative success – the core fundamental

We believe kick-starting success when engaging in collaboration across the ecosystem rests on a core cultural fundamental - enable everyone to succeed.

Collaboration is as much about facilitating success in partner organisations as it is in your own. Value is distributed, not focused into a single organisation, so contributors must receive value proportional to the value they add. It is vital participants are aligned to this cultural shift to sustain the long-term health of the ecosystem. 

Given this emphasis on helping others innovate, consideration should also be given to how ‘open’ participants are. It must be established to what degree participants will openly share data, resources, and knowledge. However, ‘open’ does not equal ‘non-competitive’. Creating strong connections that re-enforce each participant’s strengths increases the difficulty for competitors to replicate the system for themselves. 

Successful examples include Microsoft’s partner ecosystem, through which a staggering 95% of its commercial revenue flows, or COVAX, a multi-organisation-led effort to accelerate Covid-19 vaccination progress. Whether it’s rapid revenue growth or accelerated social outcomes, ecosystems enable success at scale. 

Encouraging a multi-sector approach

Beyond establishing their purpose, the first step in orchestrating any ecosystem is to stimulate network effects and grow participation, creating a virtuous cycle that not only accelerates ecosystem growth and capabilities but strengthens network connections between participants. Our view for infrastructure is that, given the wide-reaching social impacts, participants should aim to be as open as possible, encouraging a multi-sector approach and frictionless entry to the ecosystem to enable this growth. 

While not hierarchical and with no central control, ecosystems are typically ‘orchestrated’ by a single or small group of companies, with others contributing to and growing the ecosystem. These roles have not been solidified in our sectors yet, and not everyone can (or should) take on the role of orchestrator. With a fine line between collaboration and competition, we would challenge organisations to consider how best they can add value to the whole ecosystem.

George Holder is venture partnerships manager at Mott MacDonald.