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Live Labs 2 blog – update from the Wessex Partnership: Net Zero Corridors

This month our Live Labs 2 blog comes from Mike O’Dowd-Jones lead officer for the Wessex Partnership: Net Zero Corridors live lab and Service Director of Infrastructure and Transport for Somerset Council.

Wessex Partnership: Net Zero Corridors is a partnership between Somerset Council, Cornwall Council and Hampshire County Council, seeking to reduce carbon emissions by changing our ‘business as usual’ approach to highway maintenance. Our activity is focused on several travel corridors which we are using as testbeds for innovation. 

On a personal level, I’ve been discussing this as a concept for quite some time. April’s first Live Labs 2 Expo at Birmingham was a wonderful opportunity to take stock of what we have achieved so far. However, it also served as an important reminder that we are over a year into a three-year programme with a very ambitious and bold set of outcomes to deliver.   

Year one: laying the groundwork

The first year of our Live Labs 2 project has involved tackling all the crucial groundwork required and we have been rigorously putting together a carbon baseline assessment for the Highway Service in each of our authority areas. We will use this to identify the most significant carbon emissions from our operations, which we can then start to address. 

We are also starting to develop carbon baselines for our testbeds so that we can track our success in changing how we deliver maintenance activities and schemes on those specific corridors.     

Challenges in carbon assessments and collecting travel data 

This may sound straightforward, as the industry already has the science behind this worked out though the Future Highways Research Group carbon analyser, but even this first stage has really highlighted how complex it is to decide on the boundaries for such assessments. Collecting all the information needed to move beyond assumptions into a richer set of data. 

In addition to this, acquiring travel data from our staff has been more challenging than I had imagined. 

We have developed the toolkits to do this, but our services employ a large number of very busy people. Simply informing them what the project is about and getting them to record new information has demonstrated the need for a strong internal communications strand to share the narrative of what we are doing and what we are trying to achieve.

Project as a behaviour change programme

At its heart this project is a behaviour change programme, and I am fascinated to see how even at this early stage the different cultures and practices of our three local authorities influence how we undertake the project in each of our areas.

Some things that are relatively straightforward to do in one organisation are coming up against challenges and issues in another. Although frustrating at times, this information serves as a rich source of insight for us and the industry as we move forward. 

Reducing carbon emissions in inspection regimes

We have already identified from our initial carbon assessments that operational travel associated with our various inspection regimes is a large source of carbon emissions. In response, we have devised a ‘lean review’ process allowing us to explore the issue thoroughly, highlighting how we can make significant carbon reductions in our inspection regimes. 

This is a great opportunity to increase efficiencies, employ new technologies and reduce ongoing operational costs, moving beyond simply using alternative fuels for the fleet.

Another key strand is examining the wider societal and environmental implications of delivering highways services on a local, national and global scale, by developing a ‘doughnut economics’ model for the highways sector. 

Understanding impacts and opportunities

This sounds very conceptual but essentially, it boils down to a better understanding of the impacts of what we do across a wider set of metrics. 

Generally, we address environmental and economy concerns well as a sector and we have a new focus on carbon and net zero. But could we be inadvertently creating adverse societal impacts e.g. how we source or dispose of materials? 

Could we be missing the opportunity to achieve wider societal benefits through our spending? These are questions we need to explore and resolve.

Rethinking maintenance activities

Maintenance activities can be narrowly focused on replacing ‘like for like’ and I feel we could achieve wider positive outcomes for the wellbeing of our communities by ‘decompartmentalising’ our thinking. 

This is an area where ‘doughnut’ based decision making could have a huge impact, it was a powerful tool for forward thinking conversations at the Live Labs 2 Expo, so has already been hugely valuable. 

Looking ahead

In Somerset we have just awarded a new suite of highways contracts to help us deliver our services for the next decade. I was excited to gather our new supply chain partners in a room together at the beginning of May to explain what the Wessex Live Labs programme is seeking to achieve, and to start conversations on how we can change our business as usual practices together. 

Shortly, we will commission a new footway resurfacing programme on one of our testbed corridors via these new contracts and we’ll be aiming for net-zero emissions in delivery. 

Our new contractors know that I’m prepared to ‘throw out the rule book’ and am looking for innovative solutions, so I am fascinated and excited to see where this leads us, what challenges we will encounter and overcome and how close we can get to our goal.  

Further information


  • Mike O’Dowd-Jones lead officer for Wessex Live Labs and Service Director of Infrastructure and Transport for Somerset Council.

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