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Bosses on what Covid means for the future of construction and infrastructure


A year ago, Boris Johnson issued his first instruction to "stay at home" to fight the pandemic, plunging the nation into the unknown and the construction, infrastructure and built environment sectors into uncharted waters.


With companies across these sectors doing the right thing and closing sites in response to the growing concerns about the virus, everything pointed to a bumpy road ahead. Yet, while nobody would regard the past 12 months as smooth, there is a consensus that, in the main, things are nowhere near as bad as they could have been.


So, why is this, and what does it mean for the future? Here, industry experts from Atkins, Mace and Systra share their thoughts


Lizi Stewart, managing director UK transportation, Atkins

As soon as the first national lockdown hit, the agility of our people really rose to the fore. We saw unprecedented levels of collaboration within Atkins and across the sector, in supporting national efforts to contain the virus and ensure our critical infrastructure kept running safely. Then, in the marked acceleration in adoption of technology to keep the government’s investments in infrastructure moving throughout the pandemic.


Our Infrastructure Insights survey of 400 senior decisions makers showed 95% believe that digital innovation will be increasingly important after Covid, with broad consensus that the effective adoption of digitally enabled ways of working will be crucial to accelerating growth. In fact, only increased government spending was deemed more critical in this regard.


Covid presents us with a once in a generation opportunity to fix some of the country’s most long-standing problems, most notably levelling up regional disparity and improving productivity levels, which have been holding us back for decades. Covid has shown us that attitudes and behaviour can change quickly. Many saw the light of the "fourth industrial revolution", simply because they had to. In the longer term, we will bring that pace and focus to a truly green recovery, that restores not only our economy, but also our planet.


Jason Millett, chief executive officer for consultancy, Mace


While I wouldn’t for a second regard the pandemic as anything other than a terrible human tragedy, there have undoubtedly been learnings that have changed Mace for the better. Our decision to mobilise a crisis response team the week before the prime minister issued his first stay at home order enabled us to set a clear plan for the challenge ahead – including, critically, how to work in partnership with our clients. Indeed, collaboration with our clients and our entire organisation helped keep our people safe and in work. We are now a more resilient business in a stronger position to deal with future crises.


Decisiveness has been a cornerstone of our response to the pandemic, and our approach to sharing data quickly has underpinned this. We have become a more data-driven organisation as a result of Covid-19, having captured a host of metrics to keep track of our sites and our business in a remote environment. For instance, although we saw a significant reduction in the number of people working on our sites, our data showed that on projects where we’d invested in innovative, off-site construction methods our productivity remained more consistent and programmes were less likely to face delays.


Our industry was already well on the digital and data journey, but the pandemic has sped things up and we will see digital innovation at the forefront of efforts to solve the big challenges; namely decarbonisation and a need to deliver schemes more efficiently through innovations like MMC.


Steve Higham, UK managing director, Systra


Systra’s values of connected teams, excellence and bold leadership have never been more important than when driving our strategy for dealing with a global pandemic. Informed by health industry leaders, we focused on protecting people and maintaining service for clients; this underpins our outlook for the future. One year on, our "hybrid-working" policy is defined, and the business is ready to make a permanent shift. We formed a Covid panel, driving agility and pace into decision-making, mobilised homeworking in advance of national lockdown, established a digital mentorship network for early career staff and implemented special measures to support programmes of national significance such as High Speed 2, Crossrail and Trans-Pennine Upgrade.


Digital tools were vital for engaging with international design teams and communication generally. We used these to share best practice, coordinate global design delivery and host daily team video calls and regular chief executive officer updates. This ensured continuity for clients, supported the health and wellbeing of our people and protected hundreds of jobs whilst growing the business – it was particularly relevant for the 100-plus recruits who joined Systra, moving from 12 offices to 850 homes all while successfully integrating the TSP Projects business.


Industry reaction to the pandemic proves we can do things differently – an approach we must take forward for future infrastructure investment as we rebuild the economy. I’m proud to be part of the Systra team and the positive way every colleague reacted to the challenge.

Conclusion


While there has undoubtedly been a huge strain placed on construction, infrastructure and the built environment, the quick decisions of industry leaders and an overarching appetite to lead the way in Covid-19 safety have helped our major projects and programmes emerge from the pandemic relatively unscathed.


Now, with the government making clear that we must "build, build, build" to drive the economic recovery, the future looks bright. Our industry has a clear opportunity and responsibility to implement the lessons learned during this crisis to meet the needs of our population as it heals.