Why collaboration is key to delivering infrastructure better

John Skinner

Delivering large-scale infrastructure is a complex task, requiring a diverse range of discipline experts and skills across the project cycle. Planning and environment specialist John Skinner discusses how encouraging teams to collaborate over the short and long-term and across organisational and discipline boundaries can help avoid delays – and how technology can facilitate this.

Infrastructure is key to a city’s economic and social health, but residents are getting weary of delays. Our Future of Infrastructure 2019 research showed that 59 per cent of London residents expect large-scale transportation projects in the capital to be delivered late. London was not alone in thinking like this, with a majority of residents in Sydney, Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, Hong Kong and Chicago (five of nine global cities covered in the study) also citing transportation project delays as a pressing issue.

When major infrastructure projects such as Crossrail and Thameslink encounter high-profile delays, scrutiny tends to focus on the tough decisions concerning funding, political debate around challenges to the projects’ stated costs and benefits, contract issues and ineffective engagement with stakeholders, who require further detailed information to achieve their buy-in. What gets less debate is the issue of staff turnover during extended programme phases, poor communication across disciples as well as a lack of relevant experience across the project team.

Our experience working on major infrastructure projects such as the Bank Station upgrade (part of the innovative contractor engagement process) and the Wessex Capacity Improvement programme at Waterloo station (as part of the Wessex Capacity Alliance), highlighted the importance of getting the team structure right and retaining knowledge across the project cycle. Both these projects were delivered on time because we put tools and systems in place to facilitate collaboration, which allowed us to spot issues before they caused delay.

Here, we address some of the lessons learnt.

1. Getting the team structure right and planning ahead

The first task is to identify and appoint team members who are committed to stay with the project long-term, ensuring the retention of institutional knowledge during the project’s key phases.  Setting up projects with collaboration at the heart of the team ethos and then supporting staff with flexible working arrangements and professional development helps to achieve the long-term staff commitment that is crucial.

Of course, it’s not always possible to keep the same team together for the full duration of a project. The best people are constantly in demand. To minimise disruption, it’s therefore essential that the team establishes clear, easy-to-follow and appropriate practices and process to log, retain and share knowledge with each other and their collaborators across the project life cycle. This will not only help strengthen relationships and the day-to-day running of the project, but also make sure that any new members of the team can quickly get up to speed.

Second, selection of the right people is crucial across the full lifecycle of the project – from business case to project development, consents, design, procurement and construction scheduling.   Together, they can set out the programme’s critical milestones and organise timings for activities, as well as highlighting potential issues that could contribute to delays ahead of time. This informs decision-making and sets clear parameters for the team to allow them to target resources and solutions where needed.

Thirdly, getting the contracting strategy right is also crucial.  An alliance approach was appropriate for the Wessex Capacity Alliance project and our commission began at the start of RIBA design Stage 3 and continued to completion (RIBA 6). As other major projects have shown, it’s important not to underestimate the challenges of getting a new team to take on and progress an already developed design and insufficient survey information can lead to high risk allowances.

Finally, once consent is secured, the team should look ahead to plan future project phases at the same time as letting the design and build contract including detailed knowledge of planning conditions, environmental mitigation and legal agreements. For example, rather than waiting until a construction contract has been let, management plans and applying for consents should be incorporated in at the detailed design phase stage.

2. Collaboration tools

To encourage information flow and exchange from one project phase to another, a number of collaboration tools exist. AECOM have developed an integrated approach to managing data on big projects using a combination of Building Information Modelling (BIM), GIS and using a cloud based digital platform for surveys, stakeholder engagement, environmental assessment and consents.

Incorporating digital BIM data makes it possible to highlight potential delays and issues, and contact other team members to discuss possible fixes — weeks before anyone steps on-site. These new digital working methodologies generate efficiencies in delivery, reducing costs and risks, and improving health and safety.

At AECOM, we’re expanding our use of BIM tools to include environmental data within the design, for example, the presence of historic or listed structures, areas of contamination or sites of archaeological interest. This enables the whole team to be sighted on environmental requirements and specifications, including those required for planning applications, as early as possible.

In addition, via our construction-scheduling tool, we’ve linked BIM to a simulation tool (Primavera P6) that allows us to virtually run-through and evaluate different construction options. As a result, our team can create the optimum construction sequence in 4D, considering site and access constraints — before this work begins on site, and running ‘what if’ scenarios to flag and mitigate risks.

On site, the use of drones is limiting the need for people to be in potentially hazardous environments and giving teams access to wider areas faster. This includes the roofs of buildings. For example, we recently deployed drones for surveys at the Old Oak Common depot in west London. Collecting 3,000 images, we were able to use the data they generated to create a 3D BIM model for our design team. The whole process took just two days, compared to the eight weeks typically expected with traditional methods. And this data is now available for all future project phases.

3. Don’t forget the end user

We’ve also made efforts to engage with the intended users of infrastructure throughout the design and delivery process.

Virtual reality gives teams a new way to engage with staff and the public, helping them to understand how changes to major stations will benefit them before they are built. A virtual reality hub was set up at Waterloo Station for the public to come and view the redesigned station. This helped to reduce the number of objections and complaints during the works, avoiding delay.

Embedding ergonomics and human factors into our designs is essential to improve user experiences and reduce objections. For example, when designing stations, our teams analyse people’s psychological, behavioural and physical needs — such as passenger movement and behaviour to plan a station layout that will reduce overcrowding and optimise travel time.

During our work at Bank Station, this type of analysis showed that the inclusion of a travellator rather than a lift would achieve better interchange times and reduce congestion.  At Waterloo Station we were able to demonstrate to passengers how they would be able to find their way around the improved station with enhanced signage and wayfinding.

Conclusion: collaborate or face delay

Collaboration between client, designers, contractors and stakeholders is an essential foundation for any successful project but it needs investment in training and commitment from the project leadership to make it happen.

With the tools and approaches described above, the risk of programme delays can be greatly reduced. An appropriate procurement strategy, alliance-type approaches, team colocation and deployment of innovative technologies all play their part. By empowering team members and providing the right tools, consistency through the project cycle can be achieved optimising stakeholder engagement and reducing delays during the consenting and delivery phases.


Download to find out more

Thank you

Submitting your information