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IPA wants AI, modern methods of construction, infrastructure pipeline to be ‘business as usual’ by 2025 | New Civil Engineer



Use of artificial intelligence (AI), implementation of modern methods of construction (MMC) and a comprehensive pipeline of work should be “business as usual” in infrastructure delivery by 2025, according to the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA).

These business as usual expectations were the main theme in the IPA’s latest Transforming Infrastructure Performance (TIP) Live conference hosted by the Institution of Civil Engineers on 27 November, supported by Bentley Systems.

The TIP Live summits convene major stakeholders from the sector to discuss the progress and developments in the delivery of infrastructure as we head towards 2030 when it is expected that all new infrastructure will be high quality, sustainable and resilient. The IPA’s business as usual expectations for 2025 are intended as a way marker on the route towards the start of the next decade.

The IPA set out five main business as usual goals that it expects to see instilled in all major projects by the middle of the decade:

Data and insight: All delivery and operations will be optimised using technology, data analytics and AI.

Business and delivery models: There will be implementation of the Construction Playbook and increased use of MMC where suitable and best value.

Market capacity and productivity: A comprehensive pipeline of work will be published to provide industry with confidence to invest in skills and innovation.

Environment and sustainability: Sustainability and carbon reduction will be embedded in delivery processes and rooted in outcomes.

Expertise and capability: There will be apprenticeships and upskilling on project data analytics, psychological safety and other key areas across project delivery profession.

IPA chief executive officer Nick Smallwood delivered a speech about these five goals, giving his view of what he sees in the sector today and affirming that “every major project should have the principles embedded into it” and that they should be “demonstrably thought through and evidenced in the projects”. By implementing these principles, the UK’s project delivery will be “world class” by 2030, according to Smallwood.

Concerning the use of data and AI, Smallwood said that “they’re upon us” and “you really need to embrace that in everything you do”. He went on to add: “There’s no doubt in my mind that digitisation and AI has a huge part to play in becoming more productive and smarter at the same time as increasing the quality of our work.”

On the push to use more MMC, he said they are “evidenced and growing”. He continued: “Our forecast is that we’ll see even more evidence and modern methods as we go forward. Not just off-site fabrication, but modern methods of employing technologies, whether that be the use of drones for inspection, or tracking materials.”

Smallwood went on to say that the sector is “not very good at” applying the Construction Playbook, which was published in November 2020. “That was a plea from industry and from ourselves to say we don’t want to go back, after the pandemic, to pre-pandemic ways of working,” he said. “We need far stronger collaboration with our industry partners; no single contractor can deliver solutions alone. We need to collaborate, we need to do more in that space.”

Relating to the need for a comprehensive pipeline, Smallwood said: “We need to have the capacity and the confidence of what’s coming down the track.” Government officials on the day said that the pipeline will be published “in due course”, with some from the IPA hopeful that it might see the light of day before the end of the year.

Concerning the fourth business as usual goal, Smallwood said that “we need to address societal needs in the environment, including biodiversity”.

And when it came to the skills challenge, he added: “We need to invest in our people, so I’m absolutely convinced that we need new investment in skills, whether they be digital skills, the nuclear marketplace, or just into the construction sector in general, as we’re seeing ageing population in that place.”

Smallwood underlined these facts by saying, “we need a sense of urgency”. He continued: “If you look at how long it’s been since we made some pretty major announcements – whether that was the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which aren’t all principally addressed on projects; BIM mandate, which not all of you follow; net zero as a law – we’ve got the next climate budget in 2035, which is just around the corner.

“So we have a sense of urgency. The planet is warming up and the productivity in this sector is only better – just – than the agricultural industry, who are actually catching us up. So we’ve got a lot to do.”

Smallwood added that there has been progress and “green shoots” and that “we are looking across government as well, to be joined up as a client”.

He gave examples of project that are already embedding these principles, including HS2, the Transpennine Route Upgrade, Hinkley Point C and Lower Thames Crossing.

Smallwood finalsed his speech by saying: “I think we need to move out of our comfort zone of doing things the way we’ve always done and tinkering with a bit of digital. [We must] really start to collaborate differently, work differently, really challenge taking carbon out in significant amounts, doing things significantly more productively and making money while we do because we need a profitable industry.

“That’s really what the Construction Playbook was all about, but we need to do more of those principles.”

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