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Live Labs blog: Impacts, changed thinking and unexpected opportunities during Covid-19

In this month’s blog, Giles Perkins, Programme Director for the ADEPT SMART Places Live Labs Programme, talks about the impact of COVID-19 on the projects, how thinking has changed as a result and the unexpected opportunities it has given for the continued delivery of this unique programme.

When the Live Labs initiative was launched in May 2019, no one could have predicted the extraordinary times we find ourselves in with the COVID-19 pandemic. Live Labs is one of the only innovation programmes that started before, will go on after, but has been impacted by COVID-19 explicitly because it’s in the local road sector.

While the situation has presented challenges such as having equipment stuck with suppliers because staff are furloughed, manufacturing constraints impacting on supply chains and not being able to get workers to site because of social distancing issues, it has also offered the opportunity to refocus the outcomes of some of the projects. For example, one Live Lab using data-led innovation to mitigate the effects of rising traffic conditions, particularly air quality, is now focusing on the benefits COVID-19 has given because traffic has reduced and the opportunity now exists to lock in the benefits. 

Across the programme the Live Labs are the same projects, but we have been given the opportunity to view them through a different set of lenses and ask questions that before the pandemic we might not have asked. DfT has officially extended the programme to November 2021, but some Live Labs are still working towards the original deadline of May 2021 – they are not looking at it as an extension, merely a buffer should they need it. In addition we are capturing COVID-19 impacts as part of the monitoring and evaluation process to assist future innovation programmes which may be impacted by shock-events.

The teams have also had to adapt to a new way of working, which has brought about unexpected benefits. Because everything has had to shift online, many have found that working remotely means they are working more smartly. There is less of the lost time normally incurred by travelling to meetings, with a greater focus within online meetings, so, aspects of some projects have been able to be accelerated. Yes, there have been delays but time has been recovered in other ways. 

One of the things we have asked ourselves is could we have prepared ourselves for such a cataclysmic event? Yes, we know that an innovation programme is going to be buffeted by low level things like technology and staff changes, but knowing our recent history of crisis – in the last two decades there has been the outbreak of Foot and Mouth, the fuel crisis, the SARS epidemic, and the economic crash – could we have anticipated this? Of course the very nature of a crisis is that it is completely unpredictable as to when it might happen and what it might look like, but arguably it would be naïve to think there won’t be another. 

There is much to be learnt from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and we are looking at how we use it in a meaningful way for future projects. Future innovation programmes should have strategies specifically for dealing with shock events and external change.

Over the last few months we have seen incredible enthusiasm and energy from the Live Labs teams, with a real determination to continue to deliver these projects. The resilience of the people involved has been very impressive. It has brought the teams closer together and collaboration across the projects has intensified – everyone is reaching out to each other to find new ways of delivering. 

We need to capture this and build on the positives, so that we can be equally agile and resilient when the next shock event comes our way.

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