Happy New Year, and here's to a decade of positive social change

I’m excited about this decade. For one thing, it closes the door on a personally challenging ten years. And the start of a new year - and new decade - brings with it an increase in optimism: an opportunity to set new personal goals and challenges, from completing a marathon to getting a promotion, and all manner of in-betweens. But the 20’s isn’t going to be a time of solely personal gains, because we have far too many challenges which require a national and global perspective.

Economic, environmental and social challenges

Right now, here in the UK, we face economic, environmental and social challenges that will need each and every one of us to lift our eyes up from our navels and collectively strive towards a common purpose. By simply focusing on the transportation network alone, we can recognise the need to address the signs of strain and failure: congested roads; a rail network staggering under the weight of capacity; communities under threat from the effects of the climate crisis - struggling to deal with flooding, drought and increasingly ferocious storms; towns and cities choking on polluted air; and the confusing birth of a new era of electric and self-driving vehicles.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) in its first National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA), issued in July, has identified our key infrastructure challenges and set out seven recommendations and a pathway for the UK’s economic infrastructure:

· Nationwide full fibre broadband by 2033

· Half of the UK’s power provided by renewables by 2030

· Three-quarters of plastic packaging recycled by 2030

· Allocating £43 billion of stable, long-term transport funding for regional cities

· Preparing for 100% electric vehicle sales by 2030

· Ensuring resilience to extreme drought

· A national standard of flood resilience for all communities by 2050

Collaboration and participatory democracy

These are huge, complex challenges which I believe can only be met through a willingness by all of us to come together and collaborate – using these challenges as our common purpose – not just within our own sectors, but across industries and markets. Together, we can choose to create opportunities and accelerate our ability to deliver sustainable social and economic change.

And I believe our starting point is participatory democracy. We are more educated and more connected than ever before, but the way we make decisions and design and deliver services is rooted in the past. On a grand scale, citizen participation is taking off: the Brexit Citizen’s Assembly, the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care, and the An Tionól Saoránach (The Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality in Ireland) are some of the citizen engagement projects making important decisions for the future of our country and communities.

Models of inclusivity can be harnessed to help solve some of our most pressing infrastructure challenges and do more than just bring citizens along on the journey with us; it can help us shape the services of the future in ways people can understand, advocate, and crucially, will want to use.

The basics are already in place: Big data and collective intelligence is starting to influence the way we design and manage infrastructure, and we are beginning to understand traffic flow and its impact on customer journeys. Real-time information is appearing on our strategic road network, and the likes of Uber are working on apps which will personalise journeys and help to provide customers with connected travel across the transportation network. However, more must be done to engage citizens as we roll-out new interventions on our transportation networks, and crucially as we start to conceive new projects; to understand what communities and stakeholders need from our infrastructure – how they use it, and what is blocking them from changing their habits and behaviours.

Understanding decision-making and impacts

A wonderful example of participatory democracy can be seen in Barcelona, where a female design team called Col lectiu Punt 6 (Collective Point 6) are keeping up with changing community priorities by engaging with the people who live and use the city’s space to understand decision-making and design impacts. Key to the initiative is a programme called Superilla (Superblock), where cars a banned except for slow-moving delivery vehicles, and streets are reclaimed for people and human mobility. They are also redesigning toilets, shared recreation spaces, and understanding how different groups of people move around and use the city.

Closer to home, the Edinburgh Futures Institute has an incredible collaborative activity programme including The Centre for Future Infrastructure which combines engineering, informatics, architecture, social and political studies, and business school to significantly improve decision-making at regional and city level and boost the region’s economy through spin-out companies and start-ups. Their Data-Driven Innovation initiative is aiming to help organisations and citizens to benefit from the data revolution.

Local Authorities, and the highways community across the UK are coming together under the Local Council Roads Innovation Group (LCRIG) to collaborate for the benefit of road users, and the ADEPT (The Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport) Live Labs initiative is spring-boarding ideas brought forward by Authorities, supply chain partners and academia to find solutions to some of our most pressing sustainability challenges - from multi-modal travel and rural isolation to air quality.

Co-creating services and solutions

The common theme running through all of these projects is people: the focus is on making life easier, better, and healthier for communities. And initiatives like these prove that the change we need is coming, albeit currently in the form of stand-alone projects and local initiatives. However, at ground-level our roadworkers, communities and travelling customers are still facing problems old and new with little or no idea of the work being done behind the scenes to get us safely to 2030. We have to find ways to not just tell citizens what we are doing now, but actively and creatively engage with communities to co-create the services they need and keep up with the cultural shift that is gaining momentum.

The noughties were a time of ‘negative externalities’ for service providers: we created a market that delivered services for turnover not people, and budget cuts forced us to make do and deliver ‘more for less’ – a race to the bottom where nobody wins. And we’ve collectively reaped the backlash from politicians, the media and communities.

So, as we move into the new decade, let’s focus on contributing to positive social change and stakeholder value. Let’s mobilise staff, customers, stakeholders and collaborators to achieve a common purpose and disrupt our own sectors to rebuild trust, create shared value and design a bright future for all.

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