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Embracing digital change
Rollouts of new IT infrastructure were achieved in a matter of weeks during the pandemic.
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COVID-19: a catalyst for digital change

The latest Digital Benchmarking Report, informed by data from the Smart Infrastructure Index, shows that UK asset owners and operators accelerated their digital transformation in reaction to COVID-19. They will have to learn to change proactively if the infrastructure sector is to deliver more sustainable outcomes for society, writes Fraser Porte.

It’s striking how the pandemic has forced organisations to embrace new ways of working, just to continue business as usual. Remote access and cloud computing quickly became business imperatives.

The acceleration of digital adoption is clear from the findings of the Infrastructure Client Group’s (ICG) Digital Benchmarking Report 2020.

It provides a snapshot of digital maturity among 14 major UK infrastructure owners and operators from the transport, energy, defence and water sectors – all member organisations of the ICG’s Digital Transformation Task Group (DTTG), and collectively responsible for over £20bn/year of infrastructure investment. Their digital maturity was assessed by more than 450 of their staff.

Some respondents said that their organisations had no choice but to make large changes in short timescales. Rollouts of digital tools like Office 365 and wider IT infrastructure, which were slated to take months or even years, were achieved in a matter of weeks. One DTTG member commented that it was “surprising how much red tape and bureaucracy has gone.”

The collective challenge brought by COVID-19 created an environment where change, and specifically digital change, was embraced, underpinning new ways of working.

Previous resistance to remote working fell away as it became clear that efficiency was not adversely affected. A wide range of digital tools and processes became part of business as usual.

Now, individuals and organisations see practices and behaviours established since March 2020 as here to stay. The idea of travelling for the sake of a single meeting, a daily occurrence just 12 months ago, feels alien to many.

Managing change within organisations

Drawing on the change management model (below) of Kurt Lewin, one of the modern pioneers of social and organisational psychology, we can say COVID-19 has acted as the catalyst which has ‘unfrozen’ organisations. It has forced them to embrace new ways of working to keep on working.

Once organisations have adapted to change and a new status quo has been established, the model suggests there will be a subsequent period of ‘refreezing’, locking in place the new practices and technologies, and the benefits they bring.

The Kurt Lewin change management model

If one good thing can come from the pandemic, it will be that organisations are now more confident and better equipped to respond to change.

However, respondents emphasised the importance of using crises like COVID-19 to achieve lasting improvements. In the words of another DTTG member, we must “try not to do anything for the sake of [COVID-19] that does not have a lifespan.” The industry must apply its new-found adaptability and energy to driving proactive, beneficial change.

Proactive versus reactive change

The infrastructure industry is good at changing reactively. Half of the respondents to the Digital Benchmarking Report 2020 confirmed that a high proportion of decisions they make are reactive. More than three quarters said that most of their investment decisions are driven by short-term financial and regulatory cycles.

If we could make more proactive decisions, we could achieve far-reaching benefits for the industry and wider society. One area that would particularly benefit is environmental sustainability. Only two fifths said that they had assessed the impact of climate change on their critical assets.

The report highlights the need for infrastructure organisations to become equally good at proactive change – to reduce carbon emissions, adapt to the physical impacts of climate change, deliver better social outcomes and advance sustainability.

Making the industry more sustainable

Digital solutions including digital twins – digital representations of physical assets or systems, linked by data – will be vital in achieving sustainable outcomes in the industry.

Digital solutions focused on building and managing assets can enable resource use and efficiency to be addressed at a granular level. System-based solutions can inform and enable strategies for addressing more complex and interconnected issues, such as the transition to net-zero carbon, resilience to the physical impacts of climate change and the development of a circular economy.

Yet just half of respondents said that sustainability is core to decision-making in their organisation; digital is not yet being applied to deliver sustainable outcomes for society, the environment and economy.

Beyond accelerating its use of digital solutions, the infrastructure sector has learned myriad lessons throughout the pandemic. If the benefits of those lessons are retained and applied, they will help organisations prepare for and weather future challenges better.

Long-term thinking will be vital as we continue to drive change in our industry.

Read our executive summary of The Infrastructure Client Group Digital Benchmarking Report 2020.

Fraser Porte

Mott MacDonald consultant

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