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Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction

Transforming infrastructure through smarter information

In the first Smart Infrastructure Blog of 2022, Dr Sam Cocking, CSIC Research Associate and member of the UK National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) Young Professionals Panel (YPP), sets out the importance of taking into account young professionals' voices in shaping our infrastructure and the benefits it brings.

At the recent COP26 climate change conference, infrastructure and the built environment were well-represented across programmes of online and in-person events. This is fitting, given the significant carbon contributions made by our sectors, and it will be critical that, over the coming months and years, the fine rhetoric of these events is matched by actions that are proportional to the challenges we must overcome to achieve net zero.

Taken together, the necessary changes could transform the landscape of the built environment and infrastructure sectors, elevating carbon to the same status as cost, quality, and time in defining project success, and placing a far stronger emphasis on the re-use and re-purposing of existing built assets. Crucially—if we are to cut emissions in time to avoid catastrophic global warming—this sector-wide evolution will need to quickly gather pace and be complete within the working lives of today’s young professionals.

Young voices, speaking up on net zero

Success, then, will depend on buy-in from current young professionals. In my role on the UK National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) Young Professionals Panel (YPP), which represents youth perspectives from across infrastructure and supports the policy work of the NIC, I have often seen just how important sustainability is for young people. At the COP26 Built Environment Virtual Pavilion, I hosted a panel discussion on behalf of the YPP, about the ‘climate-aware built environment professionals of the future.’ The consensus among the speakers was that sustainability and the climate are key priorities for young professionals, many of whom are leaving their degrees and training programmes with relevant skills but may need confidence and encouragement to apply them in the workplace.

This discussion also highlighted the importance of strong relationships between industry and universities, so that the skills taught in higher education can be tuned to meet evolving real-world challenges. However, it is also important not to assume that the skills delivered to the next generation of graduates will be sufficient to achieve net zero carbon in the built environment; instead, whole-life learning and upskilling will be needed to ensure that future innovations developed through academic research—for instance, those associated with digitalisation and smart infrastructure—are adopted in practice as quickly as possible.

Broader teams to meet broader goals

A corollary of this skills evolution will be that the knowledge needed to realise successful projects will increasingly be spread across multidisciplinary teams rather than housed in individuals. Organisations such as the ICE are acknowledging this; they propose the introduction of a new Chartered Infrastructure Engineer qualification to recognise professionals whose skills are not those of a traditional Chartered Engineer but who nonetheless contribute valuably to infrastructure teams.

Formal accreditation of these new roles is welcome. However, this should not merely create a new silo of professionals. As noted in the COP26 discussion, this fragmentation of the sector can block the delivery of broader project goals—such as minimising carbon—if it creates uncertainty regarding who is responsible for delivering these objectives. One solution to this is to ensure that each profession, and therefore each member of a project team, is taught a common pool of core knowledge. This should include an understanding of sustainability and carbon, as well as other societal needs which civil engineering and infrastructure projects help to meet, as embodied, for instance, in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In this way, the team is more likely to share responsibility and arrive at a holistic, integrated solution which maximises potential benefits.

Infrastructure and diversity

As the skills and delivery approaches that we use to design, achieve, and maintain successful projects increase, and new roles are consequently created, this will also lead to an opportunity to improve diversity across our sectors. The recent Transforming Infrastructure Performance: Roadmap to 2030 report by the UK Infrastructure and Projects Authority sets an ambitious agenda in this regard and notes that, alongside championing diversity and improving accessibility and stability in the workplace, these changes will ‘open up the construction sector to a more diverse workforce… particularly [attracting] women and people with disabilities, who have historically been underrepresented in the sector’ and may also help to ‘reduce the stress and mental health issues associated with traditional construction site working which have been serious issues for the sector.’

Lastly, increasing workforce diversity—in addition to the holistic and multidisciplinary ‘whole-team’ approach outlined above—is likely to lead to designs that are accessible to as many users as possible. It is well established that diverse teams make better decisions, and much that is inaccessible about our existing infrastructure can perhaps be traced back to the homogeneity of its creators. In contrast, the ‘dropped kerb’ or ‘curb cut effect’ shows that everyone benefits when steps are taken to make infrastructure and the public realm more inclusive for diverse users; this also applies to mental health and wellbeing.