Day two of online conference looks at infrastructure in the new normal

14 Sep 2020

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Day two of FIDIC’s first ever online international infrastructure conference started today (14.9.20) with panellists and delegates taking part in a session entitled “Navigating change and delivering infrastructure in the new normal”, writes FIDIC communications advisor Andy Walker.

Kicking off the session, international judge and arbitrator Sir Vivian Ramsey (pictured above) said that a key change to the normal has been a move to a new uncertainty that people are having to live with. This uncertainty, he said, has affected mental as well as physical health. Economically, we have seen the collapse of the international airline industry and also the hospitality sector. Infrastructure has been less affected but has still faced big challenges, said Sir Vivian. “We have also seen the acceleration of the change from fixed to flexible offices and companies are now considering what they might need going forward,” he said.

Sir Vivian asked whether much of infrastructure’s design could be carried out remotely. While this would increase, he believed that face-to-face contact was important for creativity, training and building experience and he hoped that would not disappear. Of course, construction needs to take place onsite and this will continue with appropriate safety measures in place, he said. “We are likely to see more off site prefabrication in the future as this can be done more safely,” Sir Vivian said.

The wider impact of the crisis he said would be that industry players would look at risk differently in the future, with issues like ‘force majeure’ increasing in importance, he said. Sir Vivian also thought that there would be a move towards more smart contracts. “We should also expect more design changes as the world comes to terms with new safety regulations and guidelines – this will affect shopping, transport, IT and we will also see an increased need to ‘green’ the future to ensure we have a carbon footprint that is more acceptable to society,” he said.

Richard Robinson, Atkins chief executive for UK and Europe, said it would be an open question as to when people will get back completely to office work in the future, given people’s fears about travel and safety. Digital would increase in importance and the industry would need to grapple with how it implements new technologies when historically this was an area that construction had been poor at in the past.

Responding to the creation of a new normal affecting the infrastructure sector, Dr Gernot Strube, senior partner at McKinsey, said: “We will see a profound effect on everything in the industry,” and the entire sector would need to innovate quickly to keep up. He thought that supply chains would face particular challenges that would have a lasting effect on the industry. Fenwick Elliott partner Nicholas Gould said that there were no easy answers to challenges that had affected all industry sectors across the world.

“Coronavirus social distancing rules mean that we have a reduced capacity in our offices, around 35%, and we are gently encouraging staff as the country recovers from Covid,” said Richard Robinson. “People can work very efficiently outside the office and are doing so,” said Nicholas Gould, who thought that we would see the wholesale decentralisation of cities across the world. Most of the speakers thought that the move towards home and remote working was here to stay, but there was a hope that industry does not lose permanently that face-to-face interaction that people value in a workplace scenario.

So, does the industry just need to accept that everything has changed and that we all need to work in a different way and not hope against hope that we will return to 'normal'? “Don’t worry about going back to normal because that is not going to happen - we need to be optimistic and look forward not back,” said Nicholas Gould. Although Sir Vivian Ramsey thought that the industry needed face-to-face contact to function effectively, he strongly believed that the new normal presented an opportunity for change. “There is a wish to get back to the previous normal, but we should grasp the opportunity now to make changes especially in the area of smart data,” Sir Vivian said.

“There is a real appetite for change in the industry and we need to embrace it,” said Sir Vivian. “This is an opportunity that must not be missed,” he said.

FIDIC is grateful to Gold Sponsor Aon and Silver Sponsor Bentley Systems for their support of this event.

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