Making innovation real

+ We need to foster innovation as a culture if we are to meet the future challenges the infrastructure sector will face.

Faced with ambitious goals but often highly constrained public budgets, the infrastructure sector is one that has the potential to benefit greatly from innovative thinking. Although there are pioneering examples of innovation taking place on high-profile projects, I want to argue that a strategic approach is needed to consistently turn potential innovation into real world solutions. 

The challenges facing infrastructure today are enormous, ranging from the demands of an ever-increasing population on roads and railways; to making infrastructure resilient to the effects of climate change; to the demands of future mobility, including the introduction of driverless vehicles.

And infrastructure projects have a complicated mix of clients, consultants, supply chain members and other stakeholders, so it takes real vision to embed an innovation-led approach to delivery, one that truly goes beyond business-as-usual. 

In the UK, Crossrail has been widely lauded for demonstrating that delivery of innovation can be systematically managed in a highly collaborative environment. Crossrail developed Innovate18, a collaborative tool which allowed suppliers to share ideas for innovation throughout the programme, and provided funding for the strongest ideas. 

Innovation strategy in infrastructure seems to be starting to gain acceptance too. In the UK, HighSpeed2 has appointed a Head of Innovation and the transport body Highways England has announced its strategy for £150m ring-fenced capital spend on innovation over the next five years. 

The money is important but it’s only an enabler, just part of a broader picture.

Designers also need to think broadly about innovation and not confuse it with mere technology. Innovation can take many forms, from products to processes to behaviours and new ways of working. To truly achieve innovation in infrastructure projects, clients, designers and delivery teams need to start thinking creatively at the concept stage, implement and embed innovation systematically by bringing in good ideas - whatever the source may be - at all stages of the project lifecycle. 

What we learn from the Crossrail example is that true innovation requires a strategic commitment, proper financial support and an approach based on openness and collaboration. A common brake on innovation is the fear that there won’t be a return on investment: why share your best ideas if there’s no opportunity to capitalise on them in the future? But when a ‘risk and reward’ sharing approach is supported at the highest levels from the outset, developing new ideas becomes embedded in everyone’s attitude to the benefit of the project, its client and ultimately the end-user. 

Good ideas should travel, and when designers deliver exemplar projects featuring innovation in all stages through to construction, they need to promote them widely among their clients and peers. Only by sharing success stories and understanding that people and culture are instrumental to bringing about the change and are at the heart of innovation, will the industry increase its adoption of innovation and turn a buzz word into something real. 

It’s clear that the need for innovation in infrastructure is urgent if we are to meet the emerging challenges that face the world – they will require new thinking at all levels. Incremental change, or simply meeting a client’s existing expectations will no longer be enough.

I’d be interested to read any of your own exemplar stories, great or small, in the comments below.