Urgency needed to tackle industry productivity, says ACE chair

ACE chair, Mathew Riley.

Positive engagement around new approaches that can transform the industry is the key to rehabilitating its reputation, writes Mathew Riley.

Rolling back the clock to early 2017 and the industry was abuzz with positivity around concepts such as digital design and offsite construction and the opportunities they offered to radically transform our sector’s productivity.

Post Carillion and Grenfell, the wider-climate has changed. Our industry’s reputation is probably at an all-time low and while the opportunities previously identified are still in play, the political environment to help realise their full potential, may no longer be. 

I still believe that taken together they offer the opportunity to re-engineer our business model and processes with positive impacts for designers, engineers and construction. We can build a new approach that delivers positive impacts on sustainability and drives down cost in the longer-term. But we will need to nurture an environment for success, not one predicated on the consequences of high-profile failures.

How can we achieve this? Firstly, I think it’s about welcoming the good ideas that can drive up productivity and constructively engage with them. As I have said before, there are real solutions out there, we must do more as an industry to collaborate and promote what we are capable of achieving. Project 13 is clearly an encouraging addition to creating an environment of success and although there may be some reservations at the pace of change, the direction of travel is the right one. 

Secondly, we need urgency in the creation of the evidence base for these good ideas and the industry needs clients to step up in this regard. To rapidly accelerate the evidence for new approaches that drive productivity we need to work closely with clients who have a portfolio of projects and ongoing investments in infrastructure to demonstrate the gains not only in productivity, but gains in quality, safety and sustainability as well. Network Rail, Highways England, Transport for London and utility companies could all be potential partners and have the frameworks in place to help spearhead the wider implementation of new practices across our industry.  

"We need to work even harder to ensure that our stakeholders understand the importance of the change agenda and the positive impact it can have. For our clients, it's about getting them further faster and driving down costs. For us, we become a more attractive and dynamic industry that is better able to compete."

We will, however, need to work even harder to ensure that our wider stakeholders understand the importance of this agenda and the positive impact it can have. For our clients it’s about getting them further faster and driving down costs. For us, we become a more attractive and dynamic industry that is better able to compete. 

However, my big worry are the trends in public procurement in transferring risk and liabilities to engineers, consultants and designers, especially in the light of the recent high-profile failures. If this continues it will do nothing more than create a set of behaviours where every member of the supply chain protects their commercial position as their only priority.

This becomes unsustainable when management behaviours and market conditions cloud judgement around how realistic it is to deliver projects this way. Put simply, we must move away from a “Russian roulette” approach to procurement. ACE will be proactively engaging its members on this issue soon and will share its findings with government and other relevant stakeholders. 

As an industry we have a vital role to play but we cannot ignore the role of government and its approach to procurement in this either. We must come together to create an environment for success through constructive engagement, encourage innovation and accelerate the deployment of digital design and offsite construction. If we achieve this, we will not just be able to survive but will also enable our industry as a whole to realise huge productivity gains. Surely a win-win for all stakeholders.

Mathew Riley is managing director, UK at Ramboll and the current chair of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.