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Live Labs Commissioning Board - the power of partnership

9 August 2021

In the latest blog, Phil Skegg, Board Director and Ringway representative on the Live Labs Commissioning Board, brings a partner perspective to the programme.

The Live Labs Commissioning Board grew out of the ADEPT SMART Places Research programme, which included Ringway from the earliest discussions. Highway and place-based services for local government are the core offer for our business, so we have a long history of collaborating with ADEPT. It’s the place where the public and private sectors come together to share ideas, address challenges and develop opportunities. 

Having commercial partners on the Board is a real strength because we provide challenge, governance, resource and drive. Inevitably, commercial partners have a different approach - we share objectives and outcomes but have a different view on how to secure them. As members of the Board, it is not so much that the private sector brings something fundamentally different from the public sector, it’s that the result of having diverse partners in the room is greater than the sum of its parts.  

When we first started talking about Live Labs, it was felt that to really accelerate change across the local roads sector, we would have to be prepared to disrupt traditional business models and drive proper collaboration. With so many providers and local highways authorities (LHA), the industry is inevitably siloed and productivity has stagnated over the last few decades. Innovating at pace isn’t something we see that often and I think we all recognise that. To begin to address these challenges, we sought innovations that could be deployed at scale across the country to create a learning culture where people were keen to evolve service delivery. It was also about creating momentum - generating attention across the industry so that those who weren’t taking part, wanted to, and then using that energy to propel wholesale change. We saw Live Labs as an opportunity to start that journey. 

Watching the Commissioning Board evolve alongside the Live Labs programme has been fascinating. Initially, we were excited about the technology and the types of innovation that could come forward, but our focus has since shifted. As a Board, we have challenged ourselves continually to deliver greater value, and as the programme has matured, so our focus has moved to the deeper but arguably more significant question of legacy. Providing oversight and ensuring that each project can maximise its value continue to be core functions, but how we learn lessons, disseminate best practice and communicate our new-found understanding of organisational, behavioural and sectoral barriers to innovation are, potentially, the really transformational outcomes.

Live Labs is changing the way we assess innovation. Understanding the barriers that exist across our organisations is helping us to rethink how we present opportunities. As a sector we are understandably risk-averse, but that has also contributed to stagnation. We are getting better at asking the right questions, first examining what change will and could achieve, and going on from there. The industry and the private sector still place a lot of emphasis on product-based or digital innovation: if you’re not talking about Artificial Intelligence or a new material, people think you’re missing a trick. But actually, I think this programme demonstrates that we undervalue the impact of behaviour.

By taking a different approach to risk management, having an ‘if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work’ attitude, and by being more open-minded in working and sharing learning with competitors, I think Live Labs has created an environment where people can change their mindset. And that is what starts the behavioural transition needed to bring about real change, to do things differently and unlock productivity gains. Getting competitors to work together has been missing across the sector, but it’s essentially behaviourally driven. The technology or solutions that arise from collaboration can almost become a by-product - it’s understanding the behaviours needed to create an innovative culture that’s vital. I think that’s something we’ve really started to recognise through the programme and the Commissioning Board working together.

Enabling cultural change also requires us to look at another block to innovation – organisational systems and particularly, procurement. As we developed the Live Labs programme, the Commissioning Board was clear that an element of disruption should be in place from the outset. Supported by the Department for Transport (DfT), we took a ‘Dragon’s Den’ approach that allowed us to select the proposals to take forward at speed. We discovered that individual local authorities faced many organisational barriers when trying to work equally rapidly to kick start their projects. The Staffordshire Live Lab turned that same challenge into a trial on contracting with SMEs, and the learning on how that might be adopted across the sector is invaluable. 

If you look at what Live Labs teaches about procurement, it’s that if you know what result you want, but don’t know how to achieve it, being able to openly engage across the sector is crucial in shaping what you are going to procure. Ultimately, if a LHA could say we are selecting contractors A, B and C because of their specialisms, expertise and technology, but we want them to work together to deliver us the best outcomes, and therefore we commit to giving them the contract at the end of the procurement process, the conversation would become very different. The current procurement regulations really do restrict you from maximising that opportunity. DfT’s involvement in Live Labs means that government is paying attention and I think the ongoing review of the Transforming Public Procurement consultation is a good opportunity to reset and allow local authorities and the private sector to collaborate on innovation at pace.  

We would all love to see a Live Labs 2. If we have learnt anything through the pandemic, it is that we are significantly more effective when we work together. If we want to fundamentally change the way we deliver place-based services in the UK, we have to fundamentally change our approach, and we are not going to do that in silos. The only way to succeed is by driving much greater levels of collaboration. Live Labs 2 would be a huge kick-start for that process and I know this feeling is shared by many of my colleagues. The environmental innovations we have already seen as an outcome of the current programme could transform the sector, and what we’ve started to develop as an experienced Commissioning Board could really help support both central and local government in that. 

What an announcement for COP26 Live Labs 2 would be – bringing the best of the public and private sector together.