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Seed Speed

The civil engineering sector is procuring billions of pounds of infrastructure and demanding innovation to increase productivity, reduce carbon emissions and improve the health and safety of workers and the public.

More significant even, the solution to infrastructure reaching capacity or becoming life expired is not necessarily to build more of it.

In recent decades it has become clear that we cannot always build our way out of our most complex challenges.

Clients are increasingly asking the industry to provide more intelligent infrastructure solutions that will enable them to deliver smarter and more efficient services – whether they are in energy, water or transportation. They want to understand how their existing assets are operating, how those assets can be used more efficiently, and how they can maximise capacity.

The best way to achieve this is by integrating traditional engineering and programme management skills with digital technology capabilities.

Across the industry there are plenty of people with ideas about how to do this. Often they are smaller firms who struggle to get their voices heard. So New Civil Engineer has teamed up with
Costain to create the NCE Accelerator as a platform for small innovative firms to pitch to, and be heard by, the major industry clients that are procuring this infrastructure.

New Civil Engineer has made a commitment to showcase the work of SMEs this year through its regular SME profiles and the Trending20 competition in the NCE100. And Costain is a technology-led solutions provider that is committed to supporting and nurturing SME talent to help it deliver better outcomes for its clients.

"Digital technology is a vital enabler to meeting the rapidly changing demands of our customers"

It will help to identify the most promising innovations and help their inventors develop them.

“Digital technology is a vital enabler to meeting the rapidly changing demands of our customers,” explains Costain highways sector director Simon Ellison. “They want to be able to make
informed decisions based on accurate data that tells them how their assets are being used. And they need a range of digital tools to use those assets in the smartest way they can – from something as simple as smart metering in the water or energy sectors to entire stretches of smart motorway and integrated journey planning systems,” he adds.

“Some of these digital technologies are already familiar, but for customers to get the most benefit from them, we need innovative new ways of thinking. By combining end-to-end technology
and engineering capabilities, we are in a better position to innovate and to challenge conventional thinking.”

A case in point is Costain’s recent appointment as part of a consortium to deliver the A2/M2 Connected Corridor project. It will work with Highways England, the Department for Transport, Kent County Council and Transport for London to design, install and implement roadside technology for the connected vehicle corridor.

Trial vehicles will be fitted with on-board technology to communicate with roadside units via 5G wireless systems. Information such as road works, traffic conditions, temporary speed limits and time remaining before a traffic light turns to green could be sent to vehicles. Other sectors have similar technology focuses.

"Our purpose at Costain is all about improving people’s lives through deploying technology based engineering solutions"

Maxine Mayhew, Costain Group Capability Director

“Our water ambition is very much aligned to that – working with our customers to help create the future of water. There are three major challenges facing the industry and they’re around capacity, resilience and customer service, but that comes at a time when there’s a demand for decreasing cost, so as we work with our customers to meet these challenges through outcome-based contracts, you get a real opportunity to innovate and integrate technology.

“Incremental change won’t bring the improvements that are needed across capacity, resilience and customer service. What we need is a real step change in the solutions to drive the
outcomes.” Understanding and optimising assets is becoming increasingly important, with data set to play a big part in water companies’ thinking in Asset Management Programme 7.

“One key part of driving innovation and better outcomes is about utilising the assets that already exist in a better way,” she says. “To do that you need to understand that asset and be able to use that data to optimise how it works, what it delivers, and when it needs an intervention to improve it or maintain it.”

Which means understanding technology advances through programmes like the NCE Accelerator is crucial for a company like Costain.

Costain group innovation director Tim Embley adds: “Costain has a very focused approach to introducing technology into infrastructure projects. Through the NCE Accelerator competition we are hoping to identify SMEs from across a range of industries – be it construction, manufacturing or IT – and provide major infrastructure clients with new solutions.

“SMEs have some great ideas but just need the platform and opportunity to share those ideas with people who will invest in them. That is what we want to do.”

The focal point of the NCE Accelerator is a competition that was set to be a highlight of New Civil Engineer’s Festival of Innovation and Technology, TechFest on 19 September. This aimed to provide a stage for five small firms with big ideas to pitch their solutions to some of the industry’s most pressing issues.


"Costain has a very focused approach to introducing technology into projects"

But which issues?

To set the challenge, New Civil Engineer brought together a panel of industry clients to identify an issue that they would like to see SMEs helping to solve. More than that, panel members will work as mentors to the best SMEs that come up with the brightest solutions.

Clients on the panel were keen to keep the solutions real. They wanted SMEs who have bold ideas in how to unlock data through the application of existing technologies.

They were looking for innovations that:

  • Use technologies that exist in other sectors or in niche areas in the construction industry
  • Will provide much needed measurement of the construction process and health of the asset
  • Are ready to be trialled in a live environment (on a real site or on real data)
  • Will improve the construction process or offer benefit to end client, end user, designer or constructor

They also wanted innovations that could help:

  • Deliver intelligent infrastructure and smart cities
  • Help build a digital asset base
  • Deliver low carbon infrastructure
  • Address the circular economy or are part of the sharing economy

The winner will be presented with the prestigious TechFest Accelerator award and then go onto a structured accelerator programme, working with Costain and some leading infrastructure client mentors to test the concept.

Selected runners up will also be invited onto the accelerator programme and will be able to work with Costain and industry clients to develop their concept.

The opportunity to develop an innovation in a test-bed proved strong, and an impressive 25 SMEs submitted entries, which were reviewed by a select team that included Embley, Mayhew, Ellison and Costain innovation accelerator manager Usman Shah, who will work with the winner and shortlisted firms to help them hone their ideas.

They shortlisted eight of the entries, all of which presented extraordinary ideas for how technology-led solutions can move the industry forward and deliver value for clients and end users.

As New Civil Engineer went to press, all eight were due to present their ideas to a selection of accelerator mentors who face the agonising task of selecting the best five to present on
the TechFest main stage.

“We were really impressed by the volume and the quality of the entries,” says Shah. “After a morning of debate and deliberation we selected these eight to present to a selection of our mentors ahead of the festival as we felt it impossible to decide between them at this stage.“

“We look forward to hearing them present, and can’t wait for the festival where the final five will get to share their innovative solutions with the industry at large,” he adds. “These eight prove that this is a really exciting time for technology innovation to transform UK infrastructure,” adds Embley.

“The firms selected in the shortlist are the ones to come and watch at TechFest. Their ideas will inspire, spark new thoughts and in so doing help other businesses bring
innovations to their services. I’m looking forward to seeing who wins.”


Article first published in New Civil Engineer, October 2018.