Covid must inspire industry change, warns Mott MacDonald chair

Empty Subway Station

Industry leader sees decarbonisation lessons in the impressive global Covid response.

Mike Haigh, executive chair of Mott MacDonald, has called on the infrastructure sector to reshape itself, taking inspiration from the remarkable global response to Covid19 and the rapid achievements that have been possible in the last twelve months.

“I think the big thing about this pandemic is that it has taught us the pace of change,” said Haigh. “I hope we’ve taken on board that we can all move much quicker than we thought. Look at what we’ve been able to do in the world of science with the vaccines, look at things like in the UK with the construction of the Nightingale hospitals. We’ve been able to do things that people said were not possible,” he said.

Haigh warned that the sector will fail to decarbonise the world if it does not reform itself. “We have lots of technology and knowledge and can solve many of those problems, but do we have the structure as an industry to do that?” he asked. “Can we bring together all of the digital knowledge and skills to develop the green solutions we are looking for? I don’t think so. We can’t do that with the current transactional interfaces and thinking of ourselves as being an owner, an operator, a funder, a constructor, a designer,” Haigh said.

Haigh’s comments were made during a FIDIC seminar entitled “Working together in the new normal” where he also suggested that the industry needs to think carefully about its offices.

“The thought of actually spending 52 weeks of the year, five days a week in an office, that’s going to change,” he said. “But we’re still going to have that office environment because there’s the wellbeing aspect. The first six months [of the pandemic] when people were largely working from home, productivity was OK but how sustainable was that? People’s wellbeing was starting to be affected. People needed a change of scene. People actually needed to be with colleagues and early career professionals need interface with their seniors,” said Haigh.

SYSTRA chief executive Pierre Verzat, speaking at the same event, stressed that industry must recognise that long-term infrastructure needs have now been changed by the pandemic.

“For the rail business which is on a very long investment cycle they are not changing the direction so fast,” he said. “So today we are not observing on-the-ground changes, but the more long-term trend is the fact that life will be quite different. With less people concentrated in the same places, maybe more mobile, living remotely, taking high speed train and joining the office for one or two days per week – this will be intensive in terms of transportation consumption because although you are travelling less, you are still travelling so you need more small links to connect,” Verzat said.