How the civil engineering industry is harnessing innovation for continuous improvement

Malcolm Dare, Commercial and Procurement Executive Director of National Highways, tells Proxima about the supplier ecosystem and efficient procurement emerging from the upcoming Road Period 3 under the Government’s Road Investment Strategy
Malcolm Dare

The upcoming Road Period 3 under the Government’s Road Investment Strategy signals an evolution in the industry – one centred on collaboration. Malcolm Dare, Commercial and Procurement Executive Director of National Highways, explains where we are in the investment cycle today, the learnings and developments supporting the next era, and how innovation is being harnessed to drive significant improvements in productivity and quality.

Where are we today?

The Government committed to the first five-year Road Investment Strategy (RIS1) in 2015, investing some £17 billion. National Highways, an Arm’s Length Body (ALB) previously known as Highways England, was established as the steward of the strategic road network with a remit to operate, maintain, renew, and enhance our motorways and main ‘A’ roads.

RIS1 was then followed by RIS2 (covering the period 2020 and 2025, investing £24 billion) and comprised a large programme of capital-focused projects such as developing access to the Port of Liverpool and significant junction improvements on the M25.

As we approach the next cycle (RIS3, between 2025 and 2030), Dare and his team are shifting focus to structural renewal — updating many of the structures built in the '60s and '70s that are reaching the end of their serviceable life.

So, although some very large capital programmes will still be underway, such as the Stonehenge Tunnel and the Lower Thames Crossing tunnel and roads, overall, RP3 will see less Capex, more Opex, and the start of the structural renewal program, which will run for 10-15 years.

A shift in industry mindset: From traditional practices to collaborative innovation

The pandemic sparked the first evolution at the outset of RP2 in 2020. As we saw across many other industries, companies that collaborated with their supply base effectively were the ones to survive such tough times.

Pre-Covid, Tier 2 suppliers had little involvement in shaping schemes and projects. However, today, the network is increasingly collaborative. With both the contractor and wider supply base, collaboration is proving a key element of success in the setup of RP3.

Two focus areas being balanced in such a way today are carbon and social value. Both topics are central to what National Highways does and how it operates. No longer a ‘nice to have,’ carbon and social value criteria are built into every contract, and suppliers are expected to deliver on commitments.

We have seen successful examples of this in practice. For instance, the competitive process for the high-profile Lower Thames Crossing was not a race to the bottom on price. Rather, it focused on clever, innovative design to account for the lower carbon requirements of Lower Thames.

What’s new?

Dare highlights the progress from Tier-1 suppliers and disconnected supply chains to supplier ecosystems, which involve far greater collaboration and investment in developing suppliers’ capabilities via techniques such as demand planning, category management, and the adoption of lean thinking. He draws on the parallels with his previous experience in the aerospace defence industry, in which the concept of “platforms” and associated supplier ecosystems are more developed.

In addition to the development of supplier ecosystems, Dare also highlights the emergence of “Design for X” approaches in the civils sector — where the supply chain is far more involved in the design process to facilitate project outcomes, such as designing minimum carbon impact.    

Dare poses a world with a catalogue of standard design patterns, where elements of roads, bridges, and drainage systems, for example, use common components to drive efficiency in the overall design. Considering the automotive sector or even cruise ships, there is efficiency in the design and planning to drive greater productivity and consistent levels of quality.

The civil industry will take much of this learning over the coming five years, and those that adopt it successfully with thrive. Looking forward, he believes that on a like-for-like basis, far fewer suppliers are required, allowing the remaining suppliers to have a far greater continuity of work.

How to harness innovation in a rapidly evolving landscape

Some clever solutions are being developed within the construction industry; whether it be AI, Sustainability, or some other innovation. As an organization, National Highways’ focus is not on investing directly into developing a supplier’s innovation but rather on catalysing change in the market.

For example, although National Highways will not invest directly into developing lower carbon solutions within asphalt or concrete, their scale enables them to set expectations for key players. In turn, it catalyses the market by adjusting standards and pulling through innovations from suppliers to contribute to their carbon reduction targets by adopting new products that can also be used in other sectors. Whether it’s asphalt or other products, when the solutions are available, National Highways will use its buying power to help create the market.


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