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Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction

Transforming infrastructure through smarter information

In this month's Smart Infrastructure Blog Ann Allen MBE, Chief Executive Officer at the Chartered Institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors (CICES), welcomes a digital future for the sector but calls for technology and opportunity for all – and challenges the industry to make it happen.

The pandemic has been a major disrupter to our industry, forcing many of us to stop and think about how we can work differently – but this global event is only a start. In the face of other challenges, including the climate emergency, resource scarcity, net zero and a skills shortage, we need to plan as an industry how we create our built environment and deliver our physical and social infrastructure in a way that maximises the benefit for our communities.

Our industry works in a very volatile environment with low margins. How can we expect small businesses primarily focused on just getting the next job to invest in new technology and to consider a digital future? Ann Allen, CEO CICES

Moving to a digital world should not rely on future disrupters to make us take action and change. Across the industry we should take the lead, work together, seize the opportunity and plan and embrace new ways of working and new methods of construction. The benefits of adopting technology are now widely acknowledged. It can help to address the major issues of quality in design delivery and future maintenance; it can help to ensure that the health and safety record of our sector continues to improve; with advances in quality, we should be able to engage differently with the insurance industry; and technology can support a more sustainable, productive and efficient industry. I believe the changing nature of our work brings opportunity to address the skills shortage by attracting new entrants from different sectors and create an attractive career for a diverse workforce.

Learning from others

To make the most of these opportunities, and overcome the challenges, we need to collaborate and work together to find the best solutions. We should explore how other sectors are working and learn from them. As an industry, we provide the infrastructure and the built environment which delivers key services, but do we take time to understand how the clients we are working for are changing? How are they adopting and adapting to the digital revolution? My first challenge to you is to encourage you to ask your own companies how often they look beyond their own operations at what others are doing and consider what they can learn.

Leave no one behind

Maximising the opportunities that a digital future brings can be problematic for a sector as disparate as construction. The term ‘construction’ can apply to a major infrastructure project such as HS2, to large scale private housing schemes or a small domestic extension. Companies working in the sector similarly vary in size and scale, but all need to adopt new technologies and connect to digital opportunities – even the smallest firms. Our industry works in a very volatile environment with low margins. How can we expect small businesses primarily focused on just getting the next job to invest in new technology and to consider a digital future?

Membership organisations like ours, trade bodies and larger contractors need to provide leadership in this space. Catapults and innovation centres play an important role in research and development of ideas. The Construction Leadership Council and Construction Industry Council make great progress thinking about the digital world, but what I am not convinced I see yet is how all this important work is joined up. We must be generous with the outputs from this research and thinking – and find a way of supporting those small businesses to adopt new ways of working. So, my second challenge to you is to collaborate across our industry to ensure digital opportunities are shared by the many and not just the few.

Act now for future skills

In planning for a digital world, our sector must develop new skills. This requires attracting people to the profession who might not have considered construction as a career choice. Many members of CICES are already employing data analysts and data managers recognising the value of data interpretation and communication skills to explain and integrate data into decision making. Our skills requirements are changing.

While we need to attract new talent, we must be mindful to ensure we are an accessible industry. Historically, people could enter construction from many different pathways – ours was one of few professions where regardless of background someone could join and with the right capability and drive be highly successful. How do we ensure that we keep all pathways into the industry open to everyone and continue to play a role in inclusive economic growth? My final challenge to you is to focus on developing the right skills for the future and to ensure that our industry is welcoming to everyone with those skills.

CICES has recently launched a new 30-year strategy supporting the civil engineering surveying profession.

• Read more about CICES at