How do we deliver infrastructure projects in the 'new normal'?
What role will infrastructure play in the world that emerges after the Covid pandemic? As lockdown measures begin to ease, large scale infrastructure projects could be the most efficient way of stimulating the UK economy.
But as we move forward into the post-pandemic environment, there are lessons to be learned about the kind of projects we prioritise and how we deliver them. The answers to those questions will determine the future of jobs in civil engineering and the shape of our built environment over the coming decades.
What infrastructure do we need?
Infrastructure should meet the needs of society, but what will our 'new normal' look like? More than ever, the need for high-quality digital connectivity is paramount. In a landscape where remote working and video conferencing have been the norm, an investment in digital infrastructure will accelerate its rollout across the UK.
Connectivity is now as much about the way we move information as the way we move people. But the effect of social distancing and hygiene measures on public transport is already causing a rethink of the HS2 design. The need for hyper-local transport hubs and fast access to hospitals, schools and supermarkets is another lesson that Covid-19 has taught us.
Follow the science
It's been one of the buzzwords of the coronavirus response, but can 'following the science' inform the policy decisions we make about the infrastructure we need? Lockdown has led to a reduction in carbon emissions and improved air quality. As we head ever faster towards the carbon zero and net carbon targets, can we entrench these gains in the decisions we make going forward?
There are some positive signs. Major cities across the UK are already committing to traffic reduction measures including pop up bike lanes. The government has committed £2bn to boost walking and cycling schemes post-pandemic. As the public gets used to the prospect of easy commuting on foot or bike, what are the implications for public transport when public health concerns are factored in?
Home office, safe office?
One outcome seems certain. Employees with the capacity to work remotely will make more demands for flexible working. The home office could become a useful tool in managing safety and public concerns around the return to work, but there are additional implications of a shift away from traditional forms of working.
The implications for expensive office construction projects and transport infrastructure will be interesting to watch. Within the civil engineering sector, the ratio of desks to workers could look very different post Covid-19. And if every worker stays home for one day a week the impact on public transport and road links could be significant.
Delivering future infrastructure
With many jobs in civil engineering currently furloughed and a willingness by government to invest in large scale infrastructure projects, the onus is on the sector to deliver in the short term without compromising safety while adding value. That will take changes in business and financing models to include new ways of raising capital and working collaboratively to share risk.
We already have some useful pointers in the ways infrastructure can be used to overcome adversity. There are lessons to be learned from the way Christchurch rebuilt after the devastating earthquake in 2011. It's time to finally implement a more creative approach to the projects we deliver, using collaboration and systems thinking. In a world where finance and resources are scarcer than before, infrastructure needs to prove its value like never before.