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Smart cities are a ‘red herring’ – what you missed at the Corporate Partners Forum

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Project managers have a lot to think about over the coming decade. They will be facilitating some of the broadest changes in the way we live and work since the industrial revolution. At the same time, their own work will be changing too – in terms of both technology and the goals of the projects they deliver.

That was the overriding theme of the Association for Project Management (APM) Corporate Partners Forum in London, which took a deeper look at the six topics of Projecting the Future: artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, climate change, the ageing population, mobility and transport, smart cities and future skills.

“People have a much higher expectation of benefits from projects,” APM chief executive officer, Debbie Dore explained in her opening address. “The whole ‘cost, quality, time’ is not enough anymore for people. They want that achieved with the least amount of impact on our environment, and the biggest impact on social benefits. As project professionals, we’re going to have to take all of that into account.”

Here are seven key takeaways from the event.

1. The UK has a ‘Schrödinger’s economy’

Alpesh Paleja, head of economic analysis at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), outlined the crossroads the UK economy is at currently. Confidence and optimism among businesses has risen after the general election, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s majority put an end to parliamentary deadlock. However, there are a lot of unknown factors, including the post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union, which may prevent this confidence from translating into action.

“The prospect of a disruptive or no-deal Brexit remains a risk to the UK economy in the longer run. Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement does represent a harder form of Brexit than Theresa May’s, but it’s still better than a no deal or a more disruptive Brexit.”

2. Employees want new, AI-friendly skills – but companies aren’t giving them the chance

Around 30 per cent of existing jobs could be vulnerable to automation and AI by the 2030s according to PwC research. People are worried about the impacts of technology on their jobs, but three-quarters would actively and readily take on new skills in order to future proof themselves. Companies aren’t giving them the opportunities to do that. PwC has decided to upskill everyone in the company. The firm cannot guarantee what staff will be doing in the future, but if they’ve upskilled, they will have a job.

“There’s quite a lot of opportunity to change career,” said Rob McCargow, director of AI for the company. “At the heart of this is adaptability and the need to think about constantly changing... It’s not just about the future of learning, but learning how to learn.”

3. Project managers should share experiences to fight climate change

Project managers are signing up to 11 commitments to improve the environmental quality of their projects through UK Project Managers Declare. Around 24 companies have signed up to the commitment.

Project managers can do several things across funding and approvals, strategic direction, operational direction and project delivery, said Rob Leslie-Carter, project manager for Arup. “Project managers can start asking questions about whether the projects they take on align broadly with the goal of achieving net-zero carbon. Can they positively influence outcomes?” 

It’s important that project professionals become more open about their projects and share their climate successes and failures. “It’s about being open-minded enough to say that there’s a bigger picture here... We’ve got to share the lessons learned, knowledge and research on a completely open-source basis.”

4. As we age and keep working, we need tech and better lifestyles

The ageing population poses some very significant challenges for the UK’s health service as demand increases. Jo Stanford, senior project manager for the NHS, told delegates that technology holds part of the answer. 

“The more we can use technology to join up information and data... it frees up the fewer staff we have available, currently, to do the value-added stuff, which is working with people. It’s the human touch that is fundamentally important.”

If you’re going to be living a longer life and working for longer, it’s important to have a sense of purpose, to enjoy what you’re doing with your life, but also to take more preventative health measures. “Living longer isn’t necessarily a positive thing if you have very difficult health conditions, so we must think about our own health and wellbeing, both physical and mental. It’s about learning and investing in that long life.”

5. Transport isn’t about transport

Andrew Hugill of the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation explained that transportation projects are about more than transport itself. Instead, the focus is on how to use them to improve the economy, promote wellbeing and reduce carbon. Project managers in the space need to be more aware of these things. Transport projects are also moving away from predicting what might happen in the future to deciding what they want to happen in the future and managing projects accordingly.

“Equally important is the clarity of having a strategy for that particular part of the sector that you’re dealing in and understanding what it is that you need to deliver and achieve,” Hugill explained.

6. There’s no such thing as smart cities 

Stuart Croucher, technical principal for urban design for Mott MacDonald, doesn’t believe in smart cities. “It’s a red herring. It’s a distraction, and it’s not really real.”

Instead, the answers for improving cities are in the less exciting stuff such as governance and politics. “Smarter cities are a tool – they’re not a goal... What [local authorities] want to do is work out what their problems are and address them, which may or may not involve smarter city data.”

It’s also important to consider how the data being collected is used by the organisations that store it. “Often it tends not to be for the benefit of society as a whole, but more for the benefit of shareholders.”

7. The world isn’t ready for digital workplaces – but it will be

With teams spread across different geographical locations, virtual team technology can be extremely useful. Some teams are almost entirely virtual, but delegates at the conference didn’t believe that all of their work could be conducted within a digital workplace.

Katie Harrison, from Turner and Townsend, says that communication is going to be the most important skill for project managers in the near future, so it’s perhaps not surprising that there is some uncertainty about the use of online communications technology. “So much of your understanding of how somebody works comes nonverbally. How do you facilitate good team skills and how do you facilitate a cohesive team if you’re only communicating digitally?”

It is, however, likely to become more common in future. “We’re already seeing this with remote working and flexi-time – businesses are going to become more accommodating and they’re going to become more diverse in terms of what time you’re working and where you’re working from.”

Brought to you by Project journal.

Image: meranna/


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