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Making data work to help deliver transport infrastructure

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First published 12th July 2022, by Transport Times. 

The TIES Living Lab programme

Over the past two years, together with Dr Doug Forbes from Whole Life Consultants Ltd and the University of Dundee, Professor Lamine Mahdjoubi from the University of the West of England, Bristol, and sustainability expert Clare Ollerenshaw from Accelar we have started the process of developing protocols for data collection and a centralised repository for storing data to help deliver transport infrastructure better as part of the TIES Living Lab programme. We think this will be game-changing.

Measuring value for money

The UK is embarking on an infrastructure investment plan that will see something like £650 billion invested over the next decade. That is a once-in-a generation opportunity not only to transform the public sphere but to re-shape our understanding of what environmentally and socially responsive infrastructure projects look like.

Every large infrastructure project faces efficiency challenges. We want to be sure we are going to get value for money from our investment. Given that each infrastructure project is unique and will often involve unforeseeable challenges – how do we measure value for money?

Unlocking value across industry sectors

The problem is that, once you get beyond relatively simple concepts like cost, the question of what to measure and how to measure it in large projects becomes extremely complex. This is especially true when trying to compare across industry sectors. We know that there are important lessons to be learned from comparing major projects, but we are frustrated in our attempts to extract those lessons because, a lot of the time, it is as if they are written in different, mutually unintelligible languages. If we could find a reliable translator, we could unlock a world of value.

That is the challenge that my team at the University of Leeds Institute for Transport Studies (ITS) is trying to solve. Or to start on the road to a solution at any rate. We are one of 25 partners working on the TIES (Transport Infrastructure Efficiency Strategy) Living Lab project and we’ve been working closely with colleagues from the University of Dundee, the University of the West of England, Whole Life Consultants Ltd and Accelar, a company specialising in clean growth transition, to try to lift the lid on the vast reserves of infrastructure project data and to uncover its secrets.

Working in collaboration to create a unique data set

With funding from InnovateUK and from our partners at Department for Transport, HS2, Transport for London, Network Rail and National Highways, TIES Living Lab is attempting to transform the sector’s understanding of what efficiency in transport infrastructure delivery means, and to create practical tools for better ways of working.

In just two years we have made some huge steps forward. With the collaboration of our client-side partners, we have been able to create a unique data set that allows for the sort of holistic, cross-organisational project analysis that has never been possible before. We have created a framework to begin the process of making this huge repository legible. It is a process that has presented significant challenges – data standardisation in the industry is in its infancy – but our benchmarking tools are already demonstrating the latent value that could be unleashed by a determined, long-term commitment to standardisation and collaboration along the lines we have been setting out.

Meaningful comparisons across projects and sectors

Those benefits include the ability to measure a broader and deeper concept of value that goes beyond the traditional considerations of cost and duration. Improving environmental performance, reducing carbon emissions, addressing climate resilience, productivity and social value have emerged as major priorities over the last ten years and are set to grow in significance for policy makers and the general public alike. The benchmarking work we have done shows that this is possible to measure and make meaningful comparisons of value across projects and sectors that are fully inclusive of these more challenging policy goals.

But we are only at the beginning. What we have developed has to be used and improved if it is going to change anything in the long term. It will be an iterative process and will have to be massively collaborative. This is a Riverdance, not a tango. The real value of Living Lab is being an enabler of the future and it must not be allowed to become just another benchmarking exercise that gets left by the wayside after a couple of years of half-hearted engagement.

Communities of Practice to focus on performance areas

That is why our Communities of Practice are of such importance. These are seven working groups of experts drawn from all our partner organisations who are committed to meeting regularly to share experience and collect data. They each focus on one of the nine performance areas: productivity, cost & schedule; quality; carbon; circular economy; biodiversity; climate resilience; and social value.

The Communities of Practice create a virtuous circle where the learnings taken from the analysis of shared experience and data are implemented across the different sectors represented by the partners in the Communities, leading to new experiences to be shared and analysed with continuing iterations.

Talking about breaking down barriers, reaching across sectors, sharing best practice has been a constant of my professional life, and yet those barriers have persisted. The Communities of Practice are taking a hammer to those walls. With the commitment of the industry, they could have a transformative effect on how transport infrastructure is delivered in our country and beyond, harnessing data to drive cultural change. And fundamental cultural change is needed if the infrastructure we deliver is going to fit the values of the people who are going to use it.

It is true that giving voice to the term ‘culture change’ can sometimes be a smokescreen to avoid harder realties, but TIES Living Lab has shown that there are practical, real-world means of getting there and that the benefits are potentially substantial and will even show up on the bottom line.

Embracing the tool developed by TIES Living Lab

What is required now is the commitment of the industry and their clients to embrace what TIES Living Lab has started and what the Communities of Practice can take forward. The data, as the old saying goes, wants to be free and released from shackles. The way to liberate it is to join the Riverdance: get behind the tools developed by TIES Living Lab and support the Communities of Practice.

To find out more about the TIES Living Lab and the data benchmarking tools, visit https://tieslivinglab.co.uk/events/. A series of Living Lab information papers are being produced by NSAR and RICS, which will be available later this year.

Minister for Transport, Andrew Stephenson will be addressing the TIES Living Lab conference on Wednesday 13th July 2022. The conference will be live streamed. You can book your place here.

Dr Phill Wheat is Associate Professor, Institute for Transport Studies (ITS), at University of Leeds

Link to article on Transport Times, click here.