At a time when the public’s confidence in building safety remains severely shaken, here Mark Coates of Bentley Systems argues that a systems-based approach to infrastructure could help the construction sector make progress with some of its greatest strategic challenges and ensure tragedies like Grenfell Tower never happen again.
“The public has lost complete confidence in the construction industry’s ability to build safe and good-quality buildings,” said Peter Baker recently, head of the new Building Safety Regulator (BSR). New procedures to be put in place by BSR in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy would give builders, developers and owners larger responsibility and ownership of risk of high-rises of more than 18 metres or six storeys tall.
The watchdog will check projects at three key stages: planning approval, start of construction and handover. If it is not satisfied, it can stop work in its tracks.
The ultimate message from Mr Baker was that contractors need to start preparing immediately for the new procedures and regulations, likely to be in place in around 18 months’ time.
But this won’t just affect high-rise residential buildings – if proven effective, this will go as far as all buildings nationwide.
Mr Baker’s words echo those of Andrew McNaughton, Chair of the Review Steering Group, who argued in a recent Institution of Civil Engineers report that a systems-based approach to infrastructure could help the sector to make progress with some of its greatest strategic challenges and provide better outcomes for owners and users.
The current approach to delivering complex infrastructure projects is quickly becoming obsolete, with the sector struggling with projects that require complex systems to be planned, designed and delivered.
The use of technology to maintain and operate infrastructure networks means that interconnectedness has grown substantially in recent decades. Today, even relatively small projects are best seen as interventions into existing complex systems that provide the services needed by millions of people.
At the same time, projects need to set out early on what is critical for the operation, performance and safety of the system, and not just the biggest chunk of work by value.
Infrastructure projects exist to meet people’s needs. They do this by bringing fully integrated systems safely into use. Systems engineering is a mature process that has been shown to support this outcome for complex projects, but is still heavily underused in the infrastructure sector.
To take a prime example from the more digitally mature oil & gas industry, the project team on Shell’s Deepwater Project used safety data and performance analysis to introduce new mechanisms that helped improve contractor safety culture.
The analysis revealed that safety incidents were driven by inconsistent adherence to procedures. Addressing these gaps helped to improve productivity and encourage open reporting, which the contractors appreciated, with site safety leaders assigned to each contractor site to drive better safety culture across the board.
The increasingly technology-based functionality of infrastructure systems will mean that a different mix of stakeholders will be needed to execute projects in the future.
This technical complexity needs to be understood and managed within a delivery environment that is itself increasingly complex. Infrastructure projects face enormous and rapidly shifting pressures from politicians, local communities and many other stakeholders.
It’s clear that the infrastructure industry cannot continue as it is. Technology in areas such as communications, transportation and power generation, distribution and storage is evolving at such a pace that it is forcing a change in how we design, integrate and commission infrastructure systems.
Increasingly, the functionality of infrastructure is sitting in this technology suite and in the Digital Twin of a physical asset. This presents a huge opportunity to be much more responsive to the changing needs of users.
In the future, it seems certain that we will be making different types of interventions into infrastructure systems, with traditional construction projects giving way to the kind of work that may look and feel closer to a software upgrade.
There is a risk that the construction industry will see this as a threat to its current, more dominant position, so it is hugely encouraging that this review aligns so closely with other industry-led change initiatives.
One of the recurring themes of this review has been that infrastructure has allowed itself to fall behind other sectors such as oil and gas or aerospace, which face similar project delivery challenges.
Now is the time to close that gap and create an industry that is fit for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, and to provide the infrastructure services that future generations deserve.