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2012 London Olympics

A Legacy of Quality: Did UK Construction Learn from the 2012 London Olympics?

London boasts a healthy number of iconic sports stadiums–with another one nearly complete. Joining the ranks of England’s national sports arenas–the Oval for cricket, Twickenham for rugby and Wembley for football–will be premier football club Tottenham Hotspurs’ new grounds. The stadium’s construction has been an impressive undertaking, as the ‘New White Hart Lane’ features a number of innovative and sophisticated elements–and will be completed in just three years.

But there’s a downside. Despite all its achievements, the stadium is running seven months late. This seems all the worse when compared with another recent infrastructure sports project in the capital: the London Olympics in 2012. This massive, ground-breaking project was delivered on time, on budget and without a single casualty on site–marking a first in the history of the Games.

The Olympics were intended to mark a watershed in British construction, leaving a legacy, for the industry, communities and environment it transformed. However, many of the innovations, from quality assurance to project management, have not yet filtered through to the rest of the industry. This raises real questions about knowledge-sharing in UK construction and the role of major infrastructure projects in helping to set new standards.

So what has been the legacy of the London Olympics–and how can we ensure the construction sector learns lessons from large infrastructure projects in the future?

The Achievements of 2012

Seven years on, it’s easy to be complacent at what was achieved at London 2012. But building for the Games was an incredible logistical challenge. The complexity of the delivery created dangers on-site; there had been at least one casualty at every previous Olympic stadium ever constructed, let alone developing the wider Games complex. Many contractors were even reluctant to be involved, concerned about the reputational damage of any failure. In short, the organisers faced an uphill challenge.

But as a result, the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) and its partner CLM decided to take a highly innovative approach to the Games–rethinking many of the precedents of existing infrastructure projects, to devise bold new strategies for areas like finances, safety and engagement.

3 Innovations from the 2012 London Olympics

A realistic approach to money

When the London 2012 Olympics were awarded, the initial £2.3bn budget was increased significantly to £9.3bn–on the condition that the total would never be increased any further. This realistic and transparent approach to finance held throughout the delivery of the Games.

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The ODA agreed on a design and build fee upfront with every contractor while agreeing to split any downside or upside between them–instantly incentivising firms to keep their costs low. Payment times were also cut from 30 days to 18, to support firms of every size. The result was a sense of openness, realism and shared success.

Delivering the ‘safe’ Olympics

Safety was at the core of the London 2012 Olympics and all stakeholders–from the ODA to individual firms–were equally responsible for the record. But CLM also carried out on-site checks to ensure that every business was adhering to its own robust health and safety standards.

Construction firms on the project came to embrace this highly unusual step–and London was the first Olympic Games in history without a death on site. Together, the ODA and CLM were a highly proactive and engaged client, which could be seen in every element of the project management.

More than just a building

Values were at the heart of the 2012 Olympics–perhaps none more so than the imperative of leaving a legacy. According to Alison Nimmo, director of design and regeneration, ODA, “legacy was the starting point for everything–then we worked backwards to overlay the Games.” But critically, these values were expected to extend to everyone involved in all elements of building the project.

In addition to price, contractors were considered dependent on how well they matched the Olympic values. All the project plans were made openly available so that firms could see where their work fit into the overall complexity of the Olympic Park in Stratford. There was even a competition to complete the first stadium (it was the Velodrome, by the way). Every business was made to remember that they weren’t just delivering a building–they were delivering the Olympics.

Leaving a Legacy?

The legacy at the heart of the 2012 Olympics wasn’t just about transforming Stratford or inspiring athletes in the UK: it was about improving the construction industry. At the end, the ODA invested significant effort into capturing what was learned–and making it publicly available through the “Learning Legacy” portal.

But did it work? It’s perhaps telling that just a few years after the Olympics, the UK construction industry is under more scrutiny than ever before. The collapse of Carillion has signposted many intrinsic weaknesses in the industry, while the Hackitt Review has shown that there are pressing–potentially life-threatening–shortcomings when it comes to quality and information-sharing. The London Olympics in itself hasn’t yet delivered a turning point in construction.

That’s not, however, just a reflection on the 2012 Games. In reality, UK construction has a knowledge-sharing problem. Culture is certainly an issue, with firms often set up to be adversarial, rather than collaborative, in how they work together; half (49%) of industry professionals say that conflict resolution is the source of the most wasted time in their business.

But the fundamental issue is a lack of incentive to share knowledge and learnings. Most of the time, businesses can’t see a benefit in sharing their innovations: in fact, they could lose their commercial advantage as a result. The industry is extremely siloed–and worse, knowledge can be completely lost when an individual firm collapses. So how can the industry improve knowledge-sharing–and ensure that infrastructure projects do leave a lasting legacy?

Sharing the Knowledge

Ambassadors for key infrastructure projects

Many major infrastructure projects since the London Olympics have incorporated a learning legacy. But what’s key is not just gathering the knowledge, but sharing it proactively with businesses on the ground. A programme of cross-industry mentorship could enable those involved to spend a year sharing their insights with businesses on the ground–explaining not only what went right, but what went wrong and how it was corrected.

If one-year secondments were incorporated into the close of major infrastructure projects, this could ensure that learnings are spread quickly throughout the industry. And with funding from industry bodies or even government, this could accelerate the speed of reform.

Digital from the ground up

There’s still a clear role for individual firms to improve their own practices, incorporating greater quality and innovation into their work–and technology can play a powerful role in this regard. By using digital tools on-site to share and update plans, construction businesses can improve collaboration to help eliminate mistakes and facilitate accurate, efficient information-sharing on a day to day basis.

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Online tools can also enable businesses to develop best practices, embedding standards into every process to ensure workers are always approaching challenges in the best way. Finally, digital tools can help to build more collaborative working relationships, by creating greater transparency over individual responsibilities. That way, firms can work collectively, rather than in conflict.

Owning innovation

In the long term, construction may need to reconsider who actually ‘owns innovation.’ Currently, there’s growing momentum behind large public sector clients actually funding innovation themselves. Crossrail’s Innovate18 project funded SMEs to develop their own ideas, which were then ‘the property’ of Crossrail, rather than owned by the individual contributing businesses.

There’s even a potential for institutions like banks or insurers to be involved here. There’s a clear incentive for the banks that ultimately own large numbers of assets to fund innovations that will help to make every job more profitable. This could be a radical way of breaking silos, centralising advances and accelerating innovation.

Finding UK Construction Success Beyond the 2012 London Olympics

London 2012 was all about legacy–and in so many respects, it was a success. However, it’s evident that many learnings have not yet filtered through the construction industry and knowledge-sharing across the board remains a challenge.

However, the achievements of the London Olympics highlight the sheer scale of what British construction can accomplish–and demonstrate some incredible innovations the project pioneered along the way. Moreover, it has instilled a desire for improvement into every large infrastructure project. We’re not there yet, but if construction can start to really learn from past achievements, this will ensure that the 2012 Olympics helps drive a lasting legacy for construction.

Amanda Fennell

Amanda Fennell joined PlanGrid in October 2017 as Director of Marketing in EMEA, based in the UK. She has 20 year's marketing experience in IT, including working with some leading cloud organizations. She was the first marketing recruit in salesforce.com EMEA and supported the launch of the company in the region. Amanda holds an MA in Communications and Cultural Studies from DCU, Ireland.

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