The Insider: Martin Duffy talks...innovation

13/09/2019
Martin Duffy

Has 'innovation' simply become a meaningless buzzword? Martin Duffy – director of D2M2 - discusses how we can make real change happen.

Innovation – a time for change

The desire to provide products and services across the highways sector that are faster, better and cheaper is a number one priority for clients and providers alike.

Whether it’s a drive to improve safety for the workforce and travelling public or the desire to speed up construction activities or incident clear-up times, the intention is well meant and while this is all very commendable I’m not too sure the pace of change is something for us to be proud of.

Is this a result of apathy, limited capability, lack of funding or simply the belief that we are not empowered to challenge our well established processes and standards? Having been in the industry for over 35 years I’ve heard all of these reasons given at some time or another, and ashamedly have used some of them myself on the odd occasion.

Apathy – over the years I have worked in both the public and private sector as a consultant and contractor and built up some lifelong friendships with likeminded enthusiastic individuals who are committed to making things better in the highways industry. I’ve also met some individuals in client and provider organisations who believe that compliance is king and change is just simply too risky to explore, let alone implement. This is a behaviour we need to address not just by changing processes but by changing attitudes.

Capability – innovation is not always about the invention of something new but can often be about the application (usually with a few modifications) of a material, process or piece of equipment that is in widespread use in another industry. In order to create a more innovative culture we need greater diversity in the workforce, particularly at the senior levels and of equal importance more leaders from industries other than highways to generate fresh thinking and to challenge our norms.

Funding - I’ve witnessed many occasions where clients are asked to fund ideas that are not sufficiently thought through by the ‘innovator’, and which then subsequently fail after considerable financial investment.

While we would never want to stifle ideas, I believe clients should only pay for innovations following successful trials to demonstrate they actually deliver the outcome being sought. After all, would you be happy to buy an autonomous vehicle that the salesman claimed would improve your journey experience and keep you safe, despite the fact it had only been trialled on a deserted airfield somewhere in Arizona?

As I’m guessing your answer is ‘no’, perhaps a more appropriate way to share the risk around buying something new is for providers to develop the ideas and for clients to offer up their networks for the necessary trials. If this process was embraced, both parties would reap the benefits and deliver the innovation quicker.

Standards – I would never dare suggest we should flout our standards in the name of innovation as this could have a detrimental effect to our safety record – which incidentally still needs to improve. What I would suggest is that we need to look again at ways to speed up our ability to change standards that are quite obviously blocking or reducing that pace at which we can introduce new technologies, materials or processes.

It’s not all bad news – we are starting to see a shift in service delivery models that is resulting in a much stronger link between clients and their supply chains which is further exposing the innovative capabilities of Tier 2 and 3 organisations by developing new relationships at this level. These new communities are likely to encourage innovation and help to speed up the rate at which it is delivered.

Also, I was proud to be at the Local Council Roads Improvement Group (LCRIG) conference earlier this week. It was a fine example of the sharing proven technologies and innovations across multiple authorities by numerous innovative providers – well done Blackpool Council for leading the charge. In conclusion, while the direction of travel is positive, if we don’t make more of these changes we are likely to frustrate those who hold the purse strings making it even more difficult to attract our share of the funds.

Perhaps we should look to embrace such changes in the Roads Sector Deal, raised by Steve Berry of the Department for Transport at the LCRIG conference, to demonstrate to government that we are committed to continual improvement.

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