Innovation in the Highways Sector: A Panel Discussion Perspective

Highways UK recently hosted a panel discussion titled ‘From bid to on-site: harnessing innovation throughout the project lifecycle.’ The panel, which included Robert Tait, Sales Director at Rennicks, discussed the willingness of Local Authorities to embrace innovation and the barriers faced by both authorities and suppliers in this endeavour.

Highways UK recently hosted a panel discussion titled ‘From bid to on-site: harnessing innovation throughout the project lifecycle.’ The panel, which included Robert Tait, Sales Director at Rennicks, discussed the willingness of Local Authorities to embrace innovation and the barriers faced by both authorities and suppliers in this endeavour.

Balancing Risk and Reward

The panellists shed light on the delicate balance between risk and reward associated with introducing new innovations. Neil Levett, Exec Board Director at the Institute of Highway Engineers (IHE), emphasised the lack of incentive for clients to champion innovation due to the personal and career risks involved. The discussion touched on the historical tendency to stick with familiar, safe choices, emphasising the need to incentivise clients to take calculated risks.

Navigating Procurement Challenges

A recurring theme throughout the discussion was the challenge posed by procurement restrictions. Martin Duffy, who chaired the panel, stressed the importance of turning trials into actionable initiatives. The participants acknowledged that local authorities, although willing to embrace innovation, are often constrained by organisational policies and guidelines. These restrictions can hinder the implementation of new ideas and technologies.

Addressing Safety Concerns

Carol Valentine, Business Innovation and Technology Manager at Kent County Council, highlighted the risk-averse nature of the highways sector is for good reason – to keep people safe on the roads. While advocating for innovation, the panel acknowledged the need to maintain a focus on safety and the well-being of road users.

From the Supplier’s Perspective

Robert Tait, representing Rennicks, expressed the challenges faced by suppliers, particularly in the bid and contract stages. He highlighted the need for clear communication and understanding between suppliers, bid teams, and clients. The importance of buy-in from all parties involved in the project lifecycle was emphasised, recognising the dynamic nature of innovation implementation.

Addressing Risk Aversion

The panellists recognised the inherent risk aversion within the highways sector but highlighted the need to encourage a shift in mindset. The idea that innovation doesn’t always equate to increased costs was emphasised. The role of clients and local government officials was discussed, encouraging them to think as if the project were funded with their own money, promoting a more proactive approach to embracing innovation.

Sharing Innovations and Collaborations

Discussion also touched on the sharing of innovations within the sector. The importance of collaboration, both among local authorities and between clients and suppliers, was emphasised. The potential for joint trials and procurement initiatives was considered, with an acknowledgment that better communication and collaboration could drive faster progress.

Overcoming Bureaucratic Hurdles

The conversation delved into the bureaucratic hurdles faced by businesses, especially SMEs, in navigating the highways sector. The panel acknowledged the need for a streamlined and efficient process that allows for the timely introduction of new products and services. Bureaucratic challenges were identified as a potential deterrent for international companies looking to enter the UK market.

Learning from COVID-19

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on risk aversion was discussed. David Kinsey, Head of Service at Derby City Council, shared insights into the evolving approach toward risk and innovation since the pandemic. The panel acknowledged the importance of learning from mistakes and fostering an environment where calculated risks are embraced.

Looking Forward: Recommendations for Change

In the final segment, each panellist provided a perspective on one change they would implement within their respective domains to enhance innovation throughout the project lifecycle. Suggestions included fostering a culture of freedom and trust, improving communication and time allocation, creating an innovative environment with transparency and flexibility, and allowing room for mistakes while working collaboratively with procurement teams.

The panel discussion at Highways UK provided valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities associated with fostering innovation in the highways sector. The consensus among the panellists was that a cultural shift, improved communication, collaboration, and a more flexible approach to procurement are essential for driving positive change and innovation in the industry. As the sector continues to evolve, addressing these issues will be crucial for unlocking the full potential of innovative solutions while maintaining a steadfast commitment to road safety.

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