Innovation and research strategy

Innovation and research strategy

Nick harris

"We live in an era of both great opportunity and great challenge for our industry. We see the potential for the greatest changes in vehicles for a century and our customers rightly expect safe, reliable and informed journeys and value from their investment as taxpayers. All this is set against a backdrop of a climate and nature emergency and our immediate need to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.

We can’t stand still. We need the knowledge, the tools and solutions to respond to a changing future, while delivering on the commitments set out in the government’s Road Investment Strategy (RIS2).

Innovation and technology are critical to meeting these challenges. We must harness knowledge and opportunities across the fields of transportation, engineering, data and science, while delivering on the commitments set out in our Strategic business plan.

The government is clear about its ambition to build the UK as a centre of excellence for research and development (R&D). Highways England has a crucial role to play in supporting the UK economy by connecting our country and in building its capability as innovation leaders."

Nick Harris, Acting CEO

The strategy’s purpose

This strategy sets out our key principles for innovation and research for Road Period 2 (RP2) and beyond. It explains our vision for developing innovation and research at Highways England, aligning our investment behind bold ambitions and explains how we will accelerate change.

Our work is set in the context of five core themes for innovation, articulated in our long-term vision for Connecting the country and our Designated funds plan. We also set out five bold ambitions that will direct our energy and investment, to which we invite innovators across industry and academia to respond.

This strategy has been developed in collaboration with key stakeholders from across our organisation and wider industry. It builds on our work during Road Period 1, and will continue to evolve over the coming years.

Our investment in innovation and research represents a sector-wide commitment to modernising Highways England: our network, our relationship with our customers and our impact on the environment. While we face many challenges, there are also many exciting opportunities to transform our industry. These include digitising construction, decarbonising transport and using data to provide individually tailored services to customers.

Innovation themes

  • Design, construction and maintenance

  • Connected and autonomous vehicles

  • Customer mobility

  • Energy and environment

  • Operations
"We need to work with innovative thinkers to create the solutions, and meet the future needs of our road users, communities and stakeholders."
Mike Wilson, Chief Highways Engineer

Defining innovation and research at Highways England

For us, research is the creation of new knowledge through investigating data, trends and exploring novel ideas. This helps us to guide future plans and commitments.

Innovation takes that new knowledge and uses it to test those ideas, solutions or technology. We can then develop them into better ways of delivering our key outcomes and solving problems.

Why we innovate

Our innovation and research enables a better future

The strategic road network (SRN) connects the country by supporting the economy and wider society through the movement of goods and people.

We invest in innovation and research to solve the problems we face in delivering today’s commitments, while preparing us for the future. A future in which we meet the challenges of improving the safety and efficiency of our construction and maintenance activities. And a future where we decarbonise our network, and predict and respond to the individual needs of all our customers, whether they use our network or not.

To do this, we will harness opportunities across the fields of transportation, engineering, data and science. We will not limit our thinking, and will look to other industries for inspiration. We need to connect thinking across disciplines and collaborate across sectors to inspire, nurture, develop and implement the solutions and knowledge we need.

Our role in innovation and research

We have a role to play in the wider context of UK transportation and mobility, meeting net zero carbon and environmental commitments. At the same time, we will support the UK economy, including the construction industry, for which we are a major client.

We invest through our research and development programme and our Innovation and modernisation designated fund. We support projects that both directly deliver the solutions we need, and sometimes those that catalyse change elsewhere in the sector or our supply chain. We are not inventors, but we support and encourage bright ideas across academia, start-ups, our supply chain and wider industry, and within Highways England.

"Improving integration between government, research bodies and infrastructure operators is essential for effective collaboration and enabling real change. We believe that learning from others, using data and technology, investigating new materials and taking a few risks are our ways to achieving this."
Paul Doney, Innovation and Continuous Improvement Director

What we do

What we do

We have set out our research and innovation ambitions under five themes relating to our key challenges and functions:

  • Design, construction and maintenance
  • Connected and autonomous vehicles
  • Customer mobility
  • Energy and environment
  • Operations

Our themes are interconnected and are not intended to be addressed in isolation. We drive safety and sustainability principles across all five of our themes.

Further information about our innovation themes and their underlying priorities and ambitions can be found in our Designated funds plan.

Our ambitions

While we invest in a range of near and long-term research and innovation across all of our functions, there are five challenges where we focus on driving bold and ambitious change:

Net zero carbon by 2050

We innovate to leave the world a better place than we found it:

  • Direct operations to become carbon-neutral
  • Future net zero maintenance and construction
  • Net zero strategic road network by 2050

We innovate so that no-one is harmed when using or working on our network:

  • Reduce the number of people killed and seriously injured on our network by a fifth by 2025
  • Halve the number of serious incidents for our roadworkers, including utility service strikes and incursions into roadworks, by 2025
  • No human involvement in asset inspection and monitoring by 2040
  • Zero harm when working or travelling on our network by 2040

We innovate because every pound invested must bring value:

  • Digital design and construction by 2030
  • Standardised, modular construction by default by 2030
  • Automated construction by 2040
  • 50% cheaper total cost per km of road construction and maintenance, 2015 – 2040

We innovate because every journey matters:

  • End to end, in-journey information provided by 2025
  • Connected assets, enabling smoother journeys by 2030
  • A network fully capable of connecting with vehicles by 2035

We innovate because we are only as strong as our weakest link:

  • Innovate through connected supply chains
  • Build and support new markets
  • Drive development and use of digital tools

Our portfolio

Innovation needs to deliver value today while giving the foresight and solutions needed for tomorrow and beyond.  Our research and innovation portfolio therefore contains a blend of projects directed across our bold ambitions, our themes and the road periods in which they deliver value.

We will drive value through a relentless focus on change and improvement.  We scale and implement innovation in our organisation and projects, while taking a bold and ambitious approach to imagining and creating the future.

Our innovation portfolio will move towards a split of investment across short, medium and long term time horizons:

70% short term
  • Benefits to be realised during RP2 (2020-25) and early RP3 (2025-30)
  • Scaling up and piloting proven innovation
  • Clearly aligned with our existing strategies and transformation plans
20% medium term
  • Benefits to be realised during RP3 and RP4 (2030-35)
  • Developing and testing new solutions to meet known or emerging challenges
  • Closely aligned with our existing role, our imperatives and longer term goals
10% long term
  • Benefits to be realised during RP4 and beyond
  • Exploratory research into possible solutions to emerging trends
  • Aligned with longer term aspirations and may explore innovations from other sectors

Watch the video below which helps bring to life our current and future plans for innovation and research:

Video brings to life our current and future plans for innovation and research:

Read some examples of our innovation and research projects:

Connected and autonomous plant
Connected and autonomous plant;
Transforming road markings
Transforming road marking;
PHD and post-doctoral research partnerships
people connected with lines;
Digital Standards
Digital devices;

How we do it

How we support projects

All projects start with a concept and can be delivered through a range of activities. These include partnering with universities, through to providing access to real-world environments to enable further development. Our portfolio covers a wide range of partners and projects:

  • Academia – we are expanding our research, development and technology projects through PhDs and Post-Doctoral studies with universities
  • SMEs and start-ups – we will grow our support for the development of new solutions from small businesses and start-ups, including seed funding, advice, idea validation and access to early concept proving grounds
  • Competitions – we run targeted innovation competitions to unlock new knowledge, develop tactical solutions and support network transformation
  • Industry and supply chain – we will develop concepts and solutions that can be implemented onto the network or into our operations. We expect these to bring at least medium term benefit, or catalyse industry transformation

Opportunities and strengths to build on

Strengths to build on

  • We work with Transport Focus, our regulator the Office of Rail and Road and the Department for Transport to drive change in the sector
  • Established, mature and engaged supply chain
  • Sector ambition and desire to change
  • Mutual interests and strong connections with other infrastructure operators
  • Growing experience of collaborative innovation and research
  • An expanding network of innovators
  • An established and highly capable science and technology base in the UK

Opportunities to develop

  • Stronger collaboration and co-ordination, within and outside our sector
  • More co-funded projects with other infrastructure providers
  • Accelerate proven innovations into widespread use
  • Increase and improve access to our own and external testing and validation facilities
  • Clear commercial pathways and a mature approach to risk
  • A more balanced portfolio between short and longer-term aims
  • Share our research knowledge, experience and data more widely
  • Strengthening customer value

Joined up working: we don’t solve problems alone

We cannot and should not innovate alone. That is why we invest in strategic partnerships to reach out to a wider network. We also want to engage better with our customers, to understand how our innovation and research can better reflect their needs.

We already have strong relationships with the Conference of European Directors of Roads (CEDR), Infrastructure Industry Innovation Partnership (i3P), the Connected Places Catapult, Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), universities and other key bodies. We will strengthen and expand our partnership network to broaden our access to facilities, expertise and thinking beyond our immediate sector.

Working with industry: an opportunity for all

We commit to driving innovation in the UK; with our existing supply chain and creating more opportunities for smaller and newer companies. We will increase the diversity of those we work with, actively seeking knowledge from adjacent industries. This will broaden our horizons and bring in new ways of thinking and working.

logos of partners we work with

Our principles for innovation and research

Our principles for innovation and research are based on our values; safety, integrity, passion, ownership and teamwork. They set the direction for the way in which we will build our capability as an innovative company. These statements will form the basis of our internal improvement plan.

We are committed to developing our innovation capability. Building on the experience gained during our first Road Investment Strategy (RIS1), we will embrace new ways of working throughout our second Road Investment Strategy (RIS2) based on innovation best practice. Explore the list below for some examples leading up to the next Road Investment Strategy (RIS3):

our system icon

Our system
Four stages: research, innovation, continuous improvement and standards

innovation journey icon

Innovation journey
An established route from challenge to delivery

innovation portal icon

Innovation portal
Our web presence, where innovators can connect with us; our knowledge hub

leadership icon

Leadership and direction
Research and Innovation Advisory Board, bringing in external expertise and assurance

competitions icon

Competitions
Targeted and open competitions to seek new solutions

research icon

Research programme
Creating the knowledge and insights we need for the future, including academic research

Pilots and trials icon

Pilots and trials
Guidance for designing, planning and delivering trials

RIS1
Scale-up scenarios icon

Scale-up scenarios
Clear routes to implement innovation

Innovation culture icon

Innovation culture
Helping our people to think creatively and access innovation

Innovation cells icon

Innovation cells
Supporting the growth of centres of excellence around the company

Innovation Management System icon

Innovation management system
Creating a single space for all innovations to be tracked through their stages of maturity

Portfolios icon

Portfolios
Designing the optimum mix of short, medium and long term projects across the themes

funding icon

External funding
Work more closely with others and leverage collaborative funding

Accelerator icon

Accelerator
A fast track for certain innovations to be developed into practice at speed

RIS2
RIS3
RIS1-RIS2
  • Our system - Four stages: Research, Innovation, Continuous Improvement, Standards
  • Competitions - Targeted and open competitions to seek new solutions
  • Innovation journey - An established route from challenge to delivery
  • Research programme - Creating the knowledge and insights we need for the future, including academic research
  • Innovation Portal - Our web presence, where innovators can connect with us; our knowledge hub
  • Pilots and Trials - Guidance for designing, planning and delivering trials
  • Leadership and direction - Research and Innovation Advisory Board, bringing in external expertise and assurance
RIS2 – RIS3
  • Scale-up scenarios - Clear routes to implement innovation
  • Portfolios - Designing the optimum mix of short, medium and long term projects across the themes
  • Innovation culture - Helping our people to think creatively and access innovation
  • External funding - Work more closely with others and leverage collaborative funding
  • Innovation cells - Supporting the growth of centres of excellence around the company
  • Accelerator - A fast track for certain innovations to be developed into practice at speed
  • Innovation management system - Creating a single space for all innovations to be tracked through their stages of maturity

Value of innovation and research

The impact of our innovation and research

We know that innovation improves the service we offer our customers, and the safety and delivery of our core work. But much time can elapse between the inception of an idea to its impact on our customers, making it difficult to link investment with results. We will accelerate the innovation process and drive improvements through our schemes and our activities to release value much more quickly.

With a high level of ambition and experimentation comes the risk that the ideas we test don’t work out as successfully as we hope. And sometimes they prompt more indirect benefits such as building trust or changing industry culture. We recognise the importance of these projects for the value of learning and culture change they bring. We will include an element of high risk and high reward projects, and those with less measurable benefits alongside the pipeline of innovations expected to deliver direct benefit.

Direct value
Indirect value
Deliver new products and services to improve our operations
Strengthen technical excellence and knowledge
Develop and demonstrate our capabilities -reputation building
Contribute to UK wide challenges and social value
Strengthen our focal role in supporting the UK market and sector
Develop our company culture and engagement with innovation and improvement

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This strategy will evolve and change over time to remain current and applicable. If you’d like to share your thoughts with us or find out more about how we work, please get in touch.

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