Copper’s Martin McCrink discusses storytelling for the infrastructure sector and why now is the time to get back to basics to create the national narrative.

I recently came across a book which explained the energy sector and infrastructure in a very clear, positive and useful way. It had a vision. It told the story of why we need more electricity, how we need to build it and what the benefits are to all of us. It was not the National Infrastructure Plan, a Development Consent Order, nor was it a political party manifesto.

It was ‘A Ladybird Easy Reading Book: The Public Services – Electricity, 1967’.

The book explains, in plain English, the benefits to us – you and me – of building new infrastructure. It said we need to keep our fridges on to keep our food cold; we need to power our schools and hospitals; and we need to keep our streets lit at night. It explains that the less electricity we have, the more expensive it becomes. It also says that no one can take this for granted; in fact, we need to build connections between other countries to loan, and loan back, electricity.

It does not shy away from the issues and challenges either. The book explains that building new energy infrastructure requires skilled labour and, because the public is footing the bill, it is only fair that we build infrastructure in the safest but most cost efficient way.

Now the context in 1967 was different from today. Most of us have high speed broadband, central heating and our toilets flush. We do not have power cuts as much as we did 49 years ago. So, the challenge of setting out the benefits new infrastructure will bring is greater because, most of the time, we are upgrading, replacing or rethinking existing projects. When we build new projects, we are often making a provision for maintaining and improving on the status quo – in other words, ‘keeping the lights on’, rather than ‘switching the lights on for the first time’. We are going through an infrastructure evolution, rather than a revolution.

Why is storytelling important?
From our own research, we know that the public supports investment in new infrastructure. This is not surprising as who would argue that we do not need roads, electricity, railways and clean water. We also know the public aspires to have world leading or solid improvements to existing infrastructure.

But, the public does not see how we will achieve these standards. People do not understand how infrastructure fits together because they cannot see a coordinated plan, political or industry leadership and they do not feel involved. They cannot see a vision or a national narrative; a story. In short, the public feels infrastructure happens to them, not for them.

We need to explain the benefits of infrastructure in an up-to-date way through a modern lens. This must start with telling the infrastructure story in order to secure the broad support and acceptance of the public. This will help to give projects the social licence to deliver what we need, set out in the National Infrastructure Plan (NIP). Read more about how the NIP should be explained in a blog written by Copper’s chair, Claire Gordon.

What next?
Firstly, the National Infrastructure Commission needs to tell the story from a national perspective and set out what the UK needs, why and what the benefits are to all of us.

Secondly, industry needs to tell its own story. We are on the cusp of a golden age for new infrastructure and the benefits of each project needs to be explained repeatedly, especially as we tend to be more focused on managing the impacts – perceived and real. The public has given us a clear steer of the conditions we need to meet in return for its support – leadership, a strategic plan, engagement with technical experts and engagement on plans at the earliest stage. We need to respond to these by involving everyone who is interested in infrastructure and wants to live in a country known for having some of the best engineering and infrastructure in the world. This is, surely, an easy win for the public, the National Infrastructure Commission, industry and Government. Copper has set out the need to tell the infrastructure story in submissions to the National Infrastructure Commission and the National Needs Assessment consultation.

Perhaps we need a 2016 Ladybird-style ‘Easy Reading’ book, video, website, television series and national debate and campaign on the benefits of infrastructure.