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How to put a systems approach to infrastructure into practice

16 May 2023

We need a paradigm shift in how we approach infrastructure, says CEO of one of the UK’s biggest transport projects.

How to put a systems approach to infrastructure into practice
Visual minutes from ICE Spring Prestige lecture. Image credit: Beatrice Baumgartner-Cohen/Cohenbaum

“We know infrastructure can be transformational, but, as a sector, we too often get sucked into the detail or the shiny deliverable and forget why we’re building,” said Beth West, CEO of East West Rail.

Delivering the ICE’s Spring Prestige lecture, West explained how the project team has adopted a systems approach for the 144km rail link.

The team is focused on bringing economic benefit to towns and cities in the Oxford-Cambridge corridor.

She urged engineers to adopt three themes – interconnectedness, intent, and intermixture – to bring a systems approach to their projects.

1. Interconnectedness

“Everything now is interconnected and intertwined,” said West. “We need to think about the knock-on effects of what we're building and how it will work.”

The East West Rail team has gone beyond traditional consultations and surveys to understand the views of individuals, businesses, and communities impacted by the project.

“Put simply, we have conversations,” said West.

“We run community events. We meet with councillors, local employees, businesses, campaign groups, and other local stakeholders.

“We talk to people – we get to know them, we consider their views, we go back, and we talk again.”

She noted that, generally, the industry seems reluctant to engage with communities in this way because “it can make life a little bit tricky”.

But understanding how a project will interconnect with people's everyday lives – and designing for that – saves money in the long run, and ensures communities get infrastructure that serves them, “rather than what we think they might want”.

West also wants to see an end to the linear approach to infrastructure projects, in which highly skilled professionals work in silos.

She called for “internal interconnectedness” to foster deeper understanding and to avoid doubling effort or competing agendas.

2. Intent

It’s vital to understand the intention of any project, explained West: “The question we should always be asking is: what problem are we trying to solve?”

The intent for East West Rail isn’t just to run trains, but also to unlock sustainable growth between Oxford and Cambridge.

All too often, West remarked, projects start with an answer before knowing the question – with a decision on what should be built before identifying the need to build anything.

“Once we understand the ‘why’, we can use a systems approach to focus on how we will deliver the best solution,” she added.

“How will the railway unlock that growth? How will the railway be used by customers? How can we deliver best-in-class customer service that ensures the most people are using the railway? How will it integrate with the existing rail network? How do we build a railway fit for the future?

“Starting with the end point of how we unlock growth, we’re now working backwards, mapping everything out for a truly integrated railway.”

3. Intermixture

‘Intermixture’ is the combination of ideas, people, concepts, systems, and structures, old and new.

“From the outset, East West Rail has been about doing things differently, challenging the status quo and being a testbed for new ideas,” West explained.

“We can't deliver that without some atypical thinking. We need more diversity – a mix of people, thinking, and approaches.”

Organisations with diverse teams outperform their peers – diversity of thinking enhances and enables teams to spot and reduce risks, and inclusive teams make better decisions.

“The world is becoming more complex and interconnected, and industry challenges like reducing carbon and reaching net zero are too complicated and changing too rapidly for one person or team to solve in the time we have,” said West.

She urges project teams to bring together people with dissimilar points of view and challenge themselves to think differently.

Looking outwards

West advocates a systems approach to all projects.

“We need to look up and out to the societal benefits, economic growth and enrichment of the communities that infrastructure can bring,” she said.

Arcadis director and ICE Senior Vice President Anusha Shah, who chaired the event, added: “We are in a climate and nature emergency and, more than ever before, we have to look at how we are delivering societal and environmental outcomes.

“We can’t do that by looking inwards on our projects. We have to connect the dots and really have a whole-systems approach.”

Learn more

Watch the ICE Spring Prestige lecture again.

The next event in the series, the ICE Summer Prestige lecture, will take place on Monday 19 June on the theme of transport.

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  • Margo Cole, technical writer and editor at ICE