Are we ready to embrace a new normal?

Richard Harris, Amey Account Director
28 May 2021
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With lockdown easing across most parts of the UK and a vaccination programme seeing millions of people lining up to do their part in the fight against Covid, a return to ‘normal’ is almost within our grasp, but what will be the long lasting effects be.

We’ve seen short term changes to multi-modal travel, an increase in cycle ways and footpaths but will these trends continue – will they be widely adopted as we ‘build back better’ or is there a future where we ‘don’t need roads’

While some of us will look forward to going back to the ways things use to be, the day-to-day interactions or even looking forward to a new future, the highways sector after the property market has seen one of the biggest changes in how people live, work and travel in town and cities. This will fundamentally change the way we deliver services and are expected to create spaces that are less polluted and offer alternative greener transport options. The climate agenda was already on the cards but Covid has sped this up – there are changes already happening that the highways sector needs to make to keep up.

Covid has required us all to be more agile and adapt quickly to changing circumstances. This shift in behaviour has given us the opportunity to push forwards on transforming the way we deliver services, putting collaboration and innovation at the forefront while being mindful that local government budgets continue to be stretched. Our solutions must be intelligent and efficient in their delivery, utilising SME expertise and enthusiasm to showcase and succeed as well as breaking down the barriers that stop innovation thriving.

Through the ADEPT Live Labs programme we’ve being working with Staffordshire County Council to create a ‘safe space’ to bridge the gap between ground-breaking SMEs and real-world challenges, by trialling technological solutions developed by SMEs and scaling these to live tests. To date, the procurement of new technology involves specifying requirements and inviting the market to respond against measurable outputs. This traditional approach however can stifle innovation.

Our involvement in the ADEPT Live Labs programme takes a more holistic, outcome led approach, which fundamentally asks questions and seeks technological solutions releasing these challenges to the market with no prescriptive type of innovation sought. The challenges have been selected to represent the challenges Staffordshire is facing around air quality and mobility. These aren’t isolated to Staffordshire, but they have been spearheaded to the forefront since the pandemic hit and the talk of a ‘new normal’ surfaced.

So, what does our sector have to embrace in this new normal? The requirement for our sector to ‘build back better’ and ‘level up’ across the country was outlined in Queen’s speech that highlighted how this was going to be achieved - by strengthening the economic ties across the union, investing in and improving the national infrastructure, with proposals taken forward to transform connectivity by rail and bus and to extend 5G infrastructure. As a local living in Staffordshire, I can see how this will push forward the work we’re delivering around social mobility and improving infrastructure in the area.

To make sure we’re prepared for the new normal we need focus on the way people use towns and cities, how do they live there, travel and use the spaces to socialise. Covid has meant people are using their living spaces very differently compared to 12months ago. Cities have seen a desire for more social space outdoors and with that the need for clean air and emission free zones. The

question we have to ask ourselves is, will this be a long-term change? Do we now have to consider not only more ‘green space’ but more practical outdoor space permanently?

At Amey we’re uniquely placed to be at the forefront of this transformation through our integrated inhouse consultancy and operational specialists, which is evident on our Staffordshire contract. Our integrated teams adapt to the needs and work with our client to pose intelligent interventions that are rooted in practical thinking. Our plans are also shaped by our expertise in delivery resulting in a great platform to embrace the opportunities and challenges the ‘new normal’ will bring.

The Excellence in Place Leadership (EiPL) programme delivered by Amey and ADEPT offers the opportunity for thought leaders from within the sector to examine the key issues and opportunities affecting the transport sector and wider Place based services. The 2021 programme is centred around Building Back Better with sessions focussed on post Covid renewal. The aim of this programme is to create an environment for change, fresh thinking and the opportunity to influence strategy across the country and the wider sector.

The vision for a post Covid Place is vast and diverse. The EiPL programme enables those involved to hone in on specific themes have been brought to the forefront since the pandemic, such as Green Renewal. This requires us to re-imagine our approach to zero carbon through nature conservation, looking at how people could use green space differently and how we integrate green transport solutions. The Place leaders involved identify what is preventing better solutions, what needs to change and prioritise action plans for success.

Future sessions of the EiPL programme will look at organisational renewal and the renewal of town and city centres. Many business are exploring the feasibility of hybrid working models which could result in local towns seeing a resurgence in activity and reinvigorated demand on the use of public transport. However, these changes may be inconsistent across the country so the need to focus on local challenges will impact our sector and our approach to design and delivery. E-scooters, for example have been trialled in Staffordshire since September 2020 with over 18,700 rides taken so far, demonstrating the public’s desire to shift the way they travel for work and leisure purposes.

With this shift in traditional working methods, companies are embracing organisational renewal, using Covid and agile working to also access new skills and processes – something our sector needs to consider when building back better. As a sector we need to appeal to, and be, a sought-after workplace, redesigning services to be more customer centric.

This demand for green transport will only increase as the push for us to reduce our carbon emissions increases. The use of e-scooters, electric cars bike schemes and other ideas will require engineers to think again about how they design and build networks and input into town and city planning. Green infrastructure will need to be considered as well as solutions that tackle air quality, like the use of living walls and green spaces planned into design.

The changes that were thrust upon us during the pandemic have given us confidence to change the way we do things. This ‘new normal’ will require our sector to embrace collaboration, be better aligned and open to seek innovative solutions – ways of working that’ll shape and future proof the sector.

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