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Innovation united: How i3P is bringing the sector's R&D together

The new innovation platform for infrastructure, i3P, has morphed out of Crossrail’s Innovate18 scheme. What are its aims, how will it work and why is now the right time?

Innovation is a hot topic at the moment, both within the construction industry and with government.

Chancellor Philip Hammond’s recent Spring Budget re-affirmed the Tories’ commitment to fostering innovation, promising more cash for disruptive technologies and putting flesh on the bones of the upcoming Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

The government has been pretty clear too that industries will need to organise behind strong leadership and make a convincing business case if they are to secure ‘sector deals’ as part of the industrial strategy.

The construction industry has traditionally been seen as a very fragmented sector, lacking that single, unified voice. But when it comes to innovation, particularly in infrastructure, there are signs that clients and contractors are getting their act together.

Crossrail’s Innovate18 programme, which saw participants all pay money into a shared pot matched by Crossrail itself to provide seed funding for innovative ideas, has now been rolled over into a new scheme: the Infrastructure Industry Innovation Platform, or i3P.

Crossrail Syinyi Phoon innovation coordinator Canary Wharf

Crossrail Syinyi Phoon innovation coordinator Canary Wharf

i3P emerged from Crossrail’s Innovate18 programme

“Crossrail, as far as I know, was the first project – as opposed to an ongoing company – that set up a structured approach to innovation,” says i3P chair and Tideway CEO Andy Mitchell.

“The principle was that you’ve got a software platform where anyone who’s working on the job could log into the system, throw ideas into the hopper, no matter how half-baked or unbaked they may be, then a panel could decide which ones to put money into and see what we could make of it.

“Crossrail has shown there’s a genuine value multiplier through that process.”

Kicking off

The idea for i3P grew out of discussions about how to replicate Crossrail’s innovation programme on Tideway, which marked the next big infrastructure project to kick off and which features similar tunnelling elements to the new tube line.

“It was logical that we should take that platform and develop it,” Mr Mitchell says. “But equally, why limit it to just our projects? Surely we should be using that success and seeing if we can take it much wider and higher. The concept of having multiple people joining a pan-industry platform was a no-brainer.”

So, with Tideway and Crossrail on board at the start – one project approaching its end and the other just getting started – its two leaders sounded out other industry organisations about creating new approach to innovation.

“The concept of having multiple people joining a pan-industry platform was a no-brainer”

Andy Mitchell, Tideway

“Andrew [Wolstenholme] and I phoned around chief execs of clients and contractor organisations to encourage some interest, and that led to a kick-off session where we talked about the ambition to take the same approach on an industry-wide basis,” Mr Mitchell explains.

Those calls were clearly a success. In total, there are 22 organisations signed up to i3P already. On the client side, almost all of the biggest names in infrastructure are there, with the seven members including Crossrail, the Environment Agency, Heathrow, Highways England, Hinkley Point C, Network Rail and Tideway.

There are also 15 tier one contractor and consultant organisations on board, including Amey, Atkins, Arup, Bam Nuttall, Bechtel, Bentley, CH2M, Costain, Ferrovial Agroman, Kier, Laing O’Rourke, Morgan Sindall, Skanska and Vinci.

How i3P works

In a similar vein to the Innovate18 programme, all of those organisations have committed funds.

Each of the clients has put in £25,000, while each of the contractors and consultants have stumped up £15,000. This acts as a sort of “membership fee”, according to Mr Mitchell, with the money used to run i3P and provide a pot for seed funding of ideas.

Andy Mitchell chief executive Thames Tideway Tunnel

Andy Mitchell chief executive Thames Tideway Tunnel

Tideway CEO Andy Mitchell chairs i3P

Acting as secretariat of i3P and helping with the organisational side of things is the Knowledge Transfer Network, a partner of Innovate UK. Colin Tattam is a director at KTN and is overseeing i3P activities.

“We’re the host for the platform,” he explains. “Part of the reason why we were chosen is that we are the UK’s innovation network, and our purpose is to make connections within and across industries to accelerate innovation and growth.”

In essence, i3P is an online collaboration tool. Each member, once they join, is provided with their own landing page on the website, which can then link to their own internal innovation management tools if they have one. The page can then be used for internal use or for sharing ideas with other i3P members.

“We’re trying to drive the sharing of ideas, and initiate collaborative activity and projects to develop them,” Dr Tattam says. “Members can put out their ideas – and these spark activity across the membership.

“Part of the fees will be used to seed those early-stage collaborative projects. That will take the projects some of the way there, maybe not to full deployment – but we can identify which ones have genuine potential.

“We shouldn’t underestimate the challenge of getting 22 companies to do the same thing – it’s hard enough getting two departments in the same bloody company to do it”

Andy Mitchell, Tideway

“We can then see which prospects could be funded in other ways – whether through a consortium of i3P members, match-funding from Innovate UK competitions, or even as part of the government’s industrial strategy.”

To help identify the ideas, all of the members have agreed to use common categorisations for their ideas. “That means we’ll start to see the common themes emerge,” Mr Mitchell says.

“While the principle is that every organisation pursues what is relevant to them, putting their own money in to research their own subjects as they see fit, it will be hard not to end up concluding that we should pool our resources on this subject or that subject, and work together.

“This is where you’ll see the industry start to work together as one. That’s a huge deal, and we shouldn’t underestimate the challenge of getting 22 companies to do the same thing – it’s hard enough getting two departments in the same bloody company to do it. To get a whole industry doing things in the same way would be enormous, and would be a massively powerful signal to government that this industry is moving.”

The new norm

This is a crucial point – and one of the potential knock-on effects if i3P proves successful. Not only could it save clients and contractors money on their individual projects, it could also help prove to the government that the industry is able to act as one, putting it a strong position when arguing for more funding or support.

Thames Tideway Tunnel Inside TBM at Beckton

Thames Tideway Tunnel Inside TBM at Beckton

i3P is aimed at the whole sector, not just Tideway

Crossrail CEO Andrew Wolstenholme, who also co-chairs the Construction Leadership Council, says there is a surprisingly large amount of money already being invested in R&D in the sector. “The problem is it’s not yet joined up, it’s not match-funded, and isn’t yet invested in creating industry solutions,” he says.

“My desire as chair of CLC is to signal that innovation in the sector is going to be led through i3P, and that as we’re invited to look at what deal we might create with government on the industrial strategy, that the CLC has a very clear and very simple set of outcomes it wishes to pursue – and that those lock precisely into i3P.”

Mr Wolstenholme talks about making what happened on Crossrail the “new norm” for construction – sharing ideas around innovation to lift the whole sector as one. But why is this suddenly gaining traction now – and will it take effect when old rivalries emerge?

“The problem is innovation’s not yet joined up, it’s not match-funded, and isn’t yet invested in creating industry solutions”

Andrew Wolstenholme, Crossrail

“I think it’s been too convenient in the past to talk about not giving away the company secrets,” Mr Mitchell says. “We saw this on Crossrail – there are so few ideas that you can actually copyright, and have real IP value that you could have a competitive edge with. It’s a fallacy rather than a reality that there’s competitive advantage in some of this stuff.

“We can see in the way technology is changing other parts of our lives that we can’t sit here with our arms folded, not embracing rapid change. That’s part of the world we’re in now – people can see the time has come to rush into change, not hold back huffing and puffing.”

2017 targets

Looking ahead, the aim for 2017 is to get all 22 members doing the same things on the same platform, with a target of 1,000 individual users. There are ongoing discussions with at least one other client and a couple more tier one organisations that are yet to result in full membership – but both Mr Mitchell and Dr Tattam are keen to make sure i3P walks before it starts to run.

“I’ll be honest, that’s quite a worry. If I had a concern, it would be over-enthusiasm,” Mr Mitchell says. “You never want to say no, but we need to get this up and running, and the bigger it gets, the harder it is.

“It’s landed where it is and I’d be quite happy if it didn’t get any bigger for the first year, until we’ve proven that you can get 22 organisations doing the same thing consistently. That’s such a big challenge, I wouldn’t want to see it any bigger for now – not to be exclusive, but just to make sure it’s successful.”

Dr Tattam says his position is the same. “Yes, we do need to drive that early-stage success, but we have confidence, we have ambition, and the plan for 2017 is to build that solid foundation,” he says.

“If, at the end of this year, we’ve developed a pipeline of innovations, some which will have landed on projects and some which will be more strategic in the medium  or long term, then we’ll be where we wanted to get to.”

It’s not going to be a simple task, especially in the light of construction’s reputation for not collaborating effectively across the sector.

But it does feel like change is in the air in construction right now – and the industry, and government, will be watching the results of i3P with interest.

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