Better collaboration on projects could save infrastructure sector £50bn

The UK has a huge amount of capital infrastructure on its horizon and this brings enormous opportunity, but also considerable challenges, argues Paul Taylor.

An infrastructure boom is coming to the UK. Over the next five years, there will be some £250bn spent on programmes across energy generation and transmission, nuclear decommissioning and water. This vast amount of investment offers our industry a wealth of opportunity, but it will present us with numerous complex challenges to overcome. 

We need to start addressing some fundamental questions that sit at the heart of these challenges. Particularly pressing questions are: Do we go for replacement before renewal? Are the manufacturers and suppliers in place to deliver the equipment and materials needed for at least the next 10 years? Are there enough skilled people to manage and deliver all these programmes of work? 

Answering these points will go a long way to giving UK infrastructure the necessary ammunition to deliver these multifaceted programmes. However, managing delivery is only part of the puzzle. The infrastructure sector must deploy smarter strategic programme thinking by bringing technical experts into the fold from day one. 

The role of strategic technical experts cannot be underestimated. They work to create efficiencies and value by concentrating on outcomes within the first development stages of a programme. By closely linking programme management to technical excellence, the benefits of the investment will be maximised. Programmes will be carried out in the optimal way, thereby significantly reducing risk.  

This approach is vital now more than ever. Regulators are increasingly concerned on outcomes rather than outputs. The water sector is very much a leader in adopting this methodology. Deploying programme management in close partnership with technical expertise has enabled the sector to deliver greatly improved outcomes without the need for higher investment. 

Regulation is a driving force in this case, but it has meant that all parties involved in infrastructure projects - asset owners, programme managers, engineers and contractors - have to work together to deliver the desired outcomes. 

Bringing technical excellence and programme management under one roof brings further benefits that can serve our industry in other ways. It offers than chance to share knowledge cross-sector and identify trends and different ways of working. 

There are a huge number of similarities in the way that programmes are executed in different sectors. However, little has been done to take advantage of this. For example, the nuclear and rail infrastructure share a number of characteristics: both rely on having heavy engineering specialisms in the UK and rely on a limited supply chain. 

Or take the nuclear and water industries. Both have large scale process plants, treat massive volumes of contaminated water and solids, and have a strong regulatory requirement to protect the environment. It is clear that given these similarities, there is an opportunity for greater knowledge-sharing between the sectors. 

Closer collaboration and open transfer of ideas is a good way of generating the innovation needed to solve the challenges of delivery listed above. It also offers the chance to make significant savings. Adopting this way of thinking could potentially see the infrastructure sector successfully deliver £250bn worth of projects for £200bn.

However, for this to happen, we must look beyond managing delivery. We need to think deeply at the very early stages about how programmes should be developed to achieve desired outcomes with the minimal combined capital and operational costs, using sharing cross-sector knowledge to root out innovation. 

Paul Taylor is head of programme development at MWH, now part of Stantec, which has 22,000 employees working in over 400 locations across six continents.