21 September 2020 | Innovation

Ingraining innovation

LCRIG content director Alec Peachey carries out regular interviews with small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) to highlight the work they’re doing and the types of technologies that are driving innovation forward. This week, Paula Claytonsmith – managing director at Gaist – highlights the importance of ingraining innovation within the sector. 


Q. What is the best way to try innovations on a huge customer base?

A. “This is interesting as in my view the way to “not” do it, is just to inflict “innovation” either commercially or incrementally without working with your customers. Our innovations have either come directly from customers particularly those in LCRIG or from innovations we’ve developed internally to be efficient or with academic partners such as University of York. We then work sympathetically with an existing council service, innovation shock can really disrupt things to the detriment of introducing it in the first place.”


Q. As an SME, what are some of the main challenges you face when it comes to engaging with the wider sector?

A. “I think some of the biggest challenges can be “closed” attitudes either public or private sector. Sometimes snap judgements are made, which I think can stifle learning or innovation. Maybe I’m unusual in that I’m often most interested in learning what everyone is doing regardless of organisation. I spent a lot of time in one of my previous roles looking at how innovation or good practice can be transferred, the research was with Warwick University and Government. Organisations highest on this spectrum for transferring good practice or innovation were those focused on outcomes, not whether the organisation fitted a closed view. I want to work with “competitors” to create better outcomes for councils and see the outcomes as different strengths we all have. Sometimes it gets just a bit too personal, I hate this when really, it’s ultimately about good services to the public.”


Q. What cutting edge technologies are you most excited about?

A. “There are lots of technologies or ways of thinking that are going to be exciting, I think future iterations of AI will be a lot more stable. What I mean by this is that sometimes AI makes mistakes, which people don’t realise. This can be catastrophic or create unintended data errors so for me advanced AI is not quite here yet but when it does I hope it doesn’t remove highways engineers from being part of the decision process. Humans are better at nuance as anyone whose read any Isaac Asimov short stories knows or seen the film I, robot.”


Q. In what ways does the sector need to evolve?

A. “I think the sector is evolving in many ways already whether it’s DfT pushing innovation for the last five years, councils embracing different technologies or even adopting emerging technologies such as AI. It’s an exciting time, however just as society evolves with a pandemic, home working, new tech etc there is still a service to people and communities – the hot spots of rural mobility, the road condition in those areas, the need to consider other mobility forms on the network.”


Q. Can regulation be a barrier to innovation?

A. “I think regulation in the hands of the few can be a barrier to innovation, there are many examples where group-think can lead to “virtue” regulation. This creates a safety net for a few, whilst stifling change and innovation from other sectors, societal change or even incremental change. However simple standards do and can create, if done carefully, a sense of consistency which I think is important when conveying messages to communities and also avoids black box thinking that your average data citizen couldn’t navigate.”


Q. In what ways can the industry work better with local authorities and should there be a greater sharing of knowledge?

A. “I think councils do share knowledge and always have, it is a human trait. However sometimes the hardest thing to share is where things have gone wrong but have created the greatest lessons. This is still a tough area to encourage sharing, no one wants to stand up or write about things that didn’t go to plan especially if you’re vilified for it.”


Q. Should more designated funding be allocated for local roads and what role can innovation play in ensuring money is spent effectively?

A. “Without a doubt roads as a national asset have become worn and damaged, we can see this when we review later data from our baseline national survey data from 2016/17. I think successive governments have had to balance near term issues with those that are easy to push to one side. I don’t envy any politician when you’re considering national health services, services to young people and older people but a RIS for local roads (with planned funding) should be considered even if not a perfect solution. Innovation is now becoming ingrained in all councils, and should be planned and blended to get the most out of them.”