Delivering energy transition will test UK infrastructure

Empathy and sensitivity are two of the skills our sector needs to deliver vital new energy infrastructure – and our ability is down to our diversity, says AECOM’s Europe energy lead Eloise John.

Eloise John

The recent National Infrastructure Assessment lays bare the challenge our industry is facing: action is urgent with only 12 years left to meet the Sixth Carbon Budget, so we need to accelerate delivery of the infrastructure to support the energy transition now.

But the ability to deliver new wind and solar farms, transmission and pylons and carbon capture systems will, in part, depend on an industry operating with empathy and sensitivity, so that we get the social licence we need.

Infrastructure delivery is about far more than technical skills, it’s about really effective communication too. This new infrastructure will impact communities but purely firing technical information isn’t what’s needed online, in the village halls and in local press where these schemes will be debated.

Communities are going to see new wind turbines, substations, pylons and other infrastructure as part of the energy transition. Some of this infrastructure will directly impact them in the form of cleaner energy, but other places may find themselves in the pathway. 

The more we can work as a collective – across governments, clients, contractor – the better our ability will be to reach the net zero targets including delivering societal benefits.

As an industry, we must make sure our teams include people who can understand the needs of communities, people who can design for a range of stakeholders, people who can run robust and thorough consultations, and people who can communicate nuances.

But how do we create these teams? We’ll be able to do this is by ensuring we have a diversity of voices and people. Diversity in the infrastructure sector has never been so important. So, after years of many areas of our industry banging the drum to achieve a more diverse workforce, how well have we done?

There are many sources of data, but to take two indicators, according to EngineeringUK women continue to be underrepresented in engineering, with figures showing 16.5% of those working in engineering are women.

Another of EngineeringUK’s reports showed that among full time UK domiciled engineering and technology leavers who graduated in 2016, nearly two-thirds (65.6%) of White graduates had secured full-time employment, compared with less than half (48.6%) of minority ethnic graduates.

Diversity is also about diversity of thought and bringing the best thinking from groups who have different backgrounds, skills and experience. This means bringing people into the industry via different pathways, as well as promoting more traditional routes such as apprenticeships, degrees and more recently T Levels. Of course, there are many roles which absolutely require technical qualifications, but in the wider delivery teams, there are also roles – such as stakeholder engagement – where we can widen our pool of talent.  

There are many ways to snapshot our industry’s progress on diversity, but for me there are some important places where we can make a difference in the long term – including in the classroom and in the recruitment process. Best practice in terms of STEM outreach and recruitment are another subject matter, but my point here is that the diversity of our teams is not something that sits with the human resources team, it’s an issue which we all need to take seriously, because it impacts our industry’s ability to deliver.

We know there may be changes to the planning and consenting regimes for new energy infrastructure, but as things currently stand, the so-called ‘winning hearts and minds’ element of our work is critical. Potentially even more so with the prospect of a general election in the not too distant future. 

The infrastructure sector will achieve more, and faster, with a heightened emotional intelligence approach. This, in turn, will significantly impact our progress to reaching a just net zero. Diversity and reaching net zero aren’t two separate workstreams, they’re intrinsically linked and as an industry, our ability to strengthen that link will be hugely beneficial for everyone. 

If you would like to contact Sarah Walker about this, or any other story, please email sarah@infrastructure-intelligence.com.