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ADEPT / Proving Services Highways Innovation Conference

ADEPT’s Hannah Bartram provides an overview of speakers’ contributions to the recent ADEPT / Proving Services Highways Innovation Conference, highlighting the work of the Future Highways Research Group (FHRG).

The purpose of the FHRG, run by Proving Services, is to identify, test and disseminate genuine innovation that can transform the sector. Members include 30+ local authority sector leaders who debate, design, develop, test and share innovative solutions to prevailing and emerging challenges.

The conference began with Highways Magazine Editor, Dom Browne, talking about the work of the Department for Transport’s Steve Berry who sadly passed away recently. Steve was a highly respected colleague and valued friend to ADEPT. Dom went on to give an overview of some of the most important stories of the last year including highways maintenance budget shortfalls, the implications of the investigation into Liverpool City Council and the quiet fall from view of the Major Roads Network.

Next Up, Neil Gibson, Chair of the Live Labs Commissioning Board, gave an overview of our work to set up a second Live Labs programme. With the UK carbon emissions targets recently changing to a 78% cut by 2035, pressure is tightening across the highways sector. The emphasis to date has been on reducing the significant impacts of the modes of transportation, but not of the assets themselves, where billions are spent on highways construction and maintenance every year. These are significant carbon contributors and the main driver behind ADEPT’s ambition of running a Live Labs 2. 

So how do we deliver ‘zero carbon highways’ at a local level? We can measure energy reduction, yellow plant and electric sustainable generation on site, but currently, there is no consistent way of assessing and monitoring carbon. As a result, private sector partners often say there is a lack of clarity on how carbon objectives will be realised. We have been working for six months on a more systematic approach and are taking a Live Labs style proposition to DfT for trialling methods and solutions, and developing business cases for these solutions to become business as usual. If it progresses, the intention is that the programme is initiated in mid-2021. 

Proving Services have been commissioned jointly by Ringway and Atkins to look at how a greenhouse gas Scope 1 and 2 highways sector standardisation framework might be developed and used. Helen Bailey from the Driven Company, who is working on this, was the next speaker. She set out how the scope of the research has started with an examination of what has currently been adopted across members of ADEPT, and an evaluation of what is working and progress to date. The team will seek to understand the key environmental impacts and associated emissions across the sector and develop uniform measurement techniques as part of establishing benchmarkable standards from which to develop the assessment framework. The goal is to publish a Compliance Assessment Toolkit for Scope 1 & 2 (to be followed by Scope 3) that has been rigorously tested and peer reviewed by the FHRG for use by ADEPT members. It will also form part of the Live Labs 2 programme should that progress. This is a huge piece of work which we will cover in more detail in a future blog.

Michael Ambrose from Highways England (HE), discussed the Concrete Roads Legacy Programme. Legacy concrete roads represent 4% of the Strategic Road Network. The programme’s work is structured around five core aspects – environment, materials, asset management, testing and legacy. Work in these areas includes carbon, noise and pollution reduction, as well as looking at how to extend the life cycle of materials through non-destructive testing and recycling. 

At present, the sector is losing skills due to retirement – Highways England expects to lose 40% of its skill base over the next four years and so is embarking on a programme of internal courses and training on maintaining pavements and roads for the future. As well as creating a Concrete Pavement Maintenance Manual, videos and STEM training, HE is keen to see the development of a Post- graduate Diploma, develop a technical route through the organisation and reach other levels of education. They want to see the creation of apprenticeships for asset management and not just delivery. Finally, Michael walked us through how HE is using artificial intelligence (AI) to assess repair needs, from the initial survey to creating a digital twin and using augmented reality.

Surrey County Council is also trialling using artificial intelligence to support its highways inspections. Amanda Richards took us through the background and decision-making process behind their selection of the Routes Reports System. With the tender completed in spring 2020, the main objective was to assess whether AI could identify and classify defects against the existing safety defect matrix from video footage captured by sensors. The tender went to Route Reports because of the teach system the technology offered.

So far there has been a 27% match with highways inspectors’ assessments. They’ve found that the general environmental conditions matter – cameras do not work well in low light - which became apparent as results improved with the lighter spring mornings. Also, stopping the vehicle for a manual check prevented the cameras from getting the full view of the pothole. In addition, safety inspectors offered a dynamic evaluation that took into account other factors such as proximity to a school – so the training model needs to change to incorporate these broader elements. Surrey’s next target is a 60% match rate. They are also considering adding other asset inspections to the system such as statutory white lines.

The other conference speakers brought very different perspectives. Mark Cook, Partner at Anthony Collins, examined the advantages of using a co-operative model framework for income generation, commissioning and collaborative procurement. In Mark’s view, to achieve the levels of partnership we need to address the issues we face such as climate change, resourcing and funding challenges, we have to change the models we use for contracting. He advocates a governance-led model to provide a common framework and enable flexibility. Setting up a co-operative model provides a neutral host and establishes an equal cooperative relationship between partners, subject to cooperative principles but having a shared purpose. 

Obviously, there are rules and regulations that need to be in place. A framework agreement would underlie contracts between the cooperative and council, and the cooperative would implement the contract between itself and relevant members. For Mark, this model offers an all for one, one for all shared approach, flexibility, and solutions that are resource-based. Additionally, it offers local authorities a mechanism for shaping the market in a format where risk is shared between members. The co-operative can add contracting authorities and new members to provide a dynamism over time that is not always possible in standard models. It’s procurement still, but deployed simply.

Finally, Sukhy Duggal and Arthur Thornton from Atkins discussed the company’s experimental digital intelligence brokerage approach. The question lying behind the model, which is aimed at bringing local authorities together with more innovative SMEs, is how can you develop a business objective, and test it with a wide range of innovative approaches across a market place, when you have 150 potential strategic options?

The system is designed to enable SMEs and universities to find the right partnerships for innovation through a process of questions and analytics to enable structured answers, skills base and solutions assessment. In trials, the response analysis found a whole range of unexpected sectors were included – from defence and aeronautics to energy and health. This was because the platform enabled a wide range of potential partners to answer without going through a time and resource heavy procurement process. Teams could then determine solutions which best aligned with project and organisational drivers and were also most interesting in terms of innovation. The responses could be measured against terms such as quick wins, medium term, demonstrable, collaborative and technical. 

Other advantages included de-risking through finding partners from other sectors to achieve co-funding and equipping the supply chain to ensure they could get the support needed. There was also a matrix enabling teams to measure collaboration against technical innovation and disruption to suit project requirements. The process could help to manage the scale and range of possible responses, which local authorities don’t have time to evaluate through conventional methods. Online questions with digital analytics could be the best fit. Sukhy and Arthur are currently looking for options to test this out, so if you’re interested, please contact Hannah.

This has been a very rapid run through a fascinating conference. For more details, the conference slides are available here. For more information about the Future Highways Research Group, please contact Andy Perrin from Proving Services.

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