As part of Reading UK’s Business Recovery blog series, we speak with Scott Witchalls, Director of Transport and Infrastructure at Stantec. A global development and infrastructure design consultancy, Stantec has had a base in Reading for over 50 years and its regional hub in Reading currently employs around 300 people. As a business, Stantec has been involved in the design and delivery of some of Reading’s major development projects, from Thames Valley Park and Green Park, to Kennet Island housing development, Forbury Square and Station Hill (to name a few!), as well as transport infrastructure projects such as Reading Station, Christchurch Bridge and M4 Junction 11. Stantec’s mantra, designing with community in mind, is at the heart of everything it does - and its long-standing role in Reading’s community, has supported everything from local schools and colleges, to social value initiatives - and even litter collecting!
As a leader in development and infrastructure, what can you tell us about the outlook for 2021?
I think 2021 will be another challenging year (albeit for slightly different reasons) but there are some really encouraging signs we’re seeing, coming both from government and local authorities. The government, for example, has reaffirmed its commitment to housing and infrastructure development, such as rail projects and road schemes, as well as investment in energy solutions, which are all really important to ensure the continued success of the economy as a whole. The other key area is clean growth and how we meet our carbon reduction commitments – again, emerging and developing strong growth areas is where we’re continuing to see investment across the world in how to tackle that in emerging technology, and a mindset shift in government and major institutions.
I also find it encouraging that many of our major development clients and businesses are looking way beyond 2021 in terms of their portfolios and investment plans, planning for longer-term growth and looking to a place where the ‘nightmare’ of Covid-19 has gone away. So, although there may indeed be a short term (or even a double dip) recession, I believe that if we keep planning for the growth and keep delivering, there is a general understanding and feeling that things will, quite quickly, get back to some sort of ‘normality’ as we knew it before.
What do you think will be the biggest impact of Covid on planning, infrastructure and regeneration?
One of the key parts to this, in my opinion, will be a much greater awareness of the risks associated with Covid and other diseases and illnesses, which has led to a cultural shift and the need for cleanliness and social distancing (currently). This has already had an impact, of course, such as the current nervousness around using public transport, a mainstay of our economy. I think once we’ve got through this difficult time and the vaccine programme is rolled out, people will see more awareness from the operators in demonstrating to their customers that their vehicles are clean and efficient, and I think that will make a difference in the way we use shared transport and shared spaces. The other big thing, in my opinion, is the emergence and testing of remote working technologies that would never have happened before the pandemic.
We have seen some big efficiencies and excellent results from increased remote working. I believe this impact is one of the takeaway ‘positives’ which will lead to long-term permanent changes in the way people think about how they work.
We’ve been trying for years to encourage businesses to think about the way they do business and trying to reduce their carbon footprint by testing remote working and unnecessary travel, but nervousness around the infrastructure and costs involved has previously prevented this. However, we’ve seen this risk largely dissolve and instead have seen some big efficiencies and excellent results from increased remote working. I believe this impact is one of the takeaway ‘positives’ which will lead to long-term permanent changes in the way people think about how they work – in my opinion, the ‘9-to-5 five day a week in the office’ model is pretty much dead. This, in turn, is important when we come to designing business spaces and thinking how businesses can increase efficiencies and get greater capacity from their portfolio real estate, in addition to the continued investment in emerging technologies which will help us do this even better and ultimately reduce our carbon footprint, which can only be a good thing. Finally, the re-emergence of the importance of community within society will also have an impact on how we think about designing new spaces and places in the future. For example, we’ve seen (in some areas) the success of local centres and shops, which will start to recreate better town centres and places with more societal buy-in. I think we’ll see greater support for the smaller-scale local business who have helped us through this challenging time and many of which have been very good at adapting during tough times. For me, we should look at the positives that have come out of this wherever we can and then use these learnings to help tackle wider issues such as the ongoing climate emergency.
What hints / tips / information can you share for other businesses thinking about planning and infrastructure in 2021?
I believe this goes back to basic business planning – it’s about resilience and being able to adapt the way we do business in order to meet changing demands and potential disrupters. Of course, we still have the climate emergency to tackle, so I would encourage businesses to think about introducing measures which can lead to business efficiencies, save them money, make their staff and output more productive, and also support the mental wellbeing of their employees and teams. For me, the emergence of these new technologies to help solve some of these problems, particularly the field of green tech, will come to the fore and we’ll have to think seriously about using green tech solutions to reduce our carbon footprint, too. But ultimately this is about society and communities and we mustn’t forget that. We need to remember the basic principles about what we’re trying to achieve and concentrate on finding the best solution to tackle that problem.
If you could share a “best kept secret” in relation to development and infrastructure in 2021, what would this be and why?
I don’t think there’s a real ‘best kept secret’, but I would say exploiting emerging technologies and use of data is something we’ve seen much more of. In our Thames Valley Smart City Cluster Programme, for example, we talked to the authorities and various other groups about the challenges they’re facing to see if we could use data and technology to solve problems, save money and improve performance. So, I think this is the sort of thing we should be focusing on.
We still have the climate emergency to tackle, so I would encourage businesses to think about introducing measures which can lead to business efficiencies, save them money, make their staff and output more productive and also support the mental wellbeing of their employees and teams.
What has kept you going during 2020?
The last year has been tough for everyone I’ve spoken to, but as a business, what’s kept me going most of all is the way we’ve quickly adapted to a new way of working. Everyone at Stantec is set up to work productively remotely and throughout 2020 most of us have been kept very busy because our clients have been looking for ways to keep their projects alive. Instead of downing their tools, businesses have been asking what else they can do, how can they can look after our teams, keep building and keep Covid-safe, which is really encouraging. It’s also really pleasing to see how we’ve supported our teams at Stantec, and in turn, how our teams have kept the social side going as much as possible. From online quizzes to cocktail evenings, it’s been great to see different ideas to keep each other supported, happy and engaged through a tricky year. Outside of work, I have two frontline nurses in my household and three daughters which have certainly kept me going – and kept me on my toes!
What are you most excited about for 2021?
I suppose the obvious answer is the effective rollout of the vaccine – but for me, it’s more than that, it’s what emerges from that which is the most exciting. For me, it’s the return to social interaction. Yes, we’ve all got so used to Teams and Zoom, but we all really miss the human interaction, the design collaboration, going for meals and just going to the pub! It seems really simple, but it’s made us appreciate what we previously took for granted. I’m also excited that businesses which have really suffered from this last year, such as hospitality, restaurants and retail, will have the opportunity to bounce back – hopefully as quickly as possible. We’re so reliant on them for our health and wellbeing, because we all love getting outdoors and doing things together. It’s quite simple, it’s not a business thing, but I just miss talking to real people rather than screens!
Scott Witchalls sits on the board of Reading UK and has worked with us in support of Reading’s Economic Recovery Strategy. More information on Stantec and how they can support businesses through design, development and infrastructure projects can be found on their website.