We’ve all had to adjust to the unexpected during the pandemic.

The Capita Institute's great opportunity debate research – the first quarter results of which are now available to download in our report – found that the change in working patterns had the most impact on individuals and their organisations overall over the past 12 or so months. Out of the senior decision-makers we polled, over 60% highlighted this as the biggest change for them by putting it in their top three.

However, the survey, which was conducted in collaboration with YouGov, also grouped respondents into three macro-sectors: government, financial services and critical infrastructure. Critical infrastructure covered respondents from telecommunications, utilities, oil & energy and transport. Interestingly, this group reported being the least affected by the move to remote working, with less than half ranking it as one of their top three biggest changes from 2020.

Instead, for those who work in these industries, the biggest challenge was understanding how field operations and structures needed to change in response to the disruption they experienced. Indeed, one C-suite respondent described how factors including “growth plans torn up, reduced headcount, uncertain business landscape” created not only significant challenges, but also opportunities. As another senior director put it, “The events of the last 12 months have made us realise we can do things differently and still deliver.”

One industry in which demand dropped most drastically was public transport, with Department for Transport figures showing that the number of people travelling by train or tube dropped as low as 5% during the first lockdown in April 2020. In tandem, those services that kept running were subject to significant adjustments to protect passengers, including careful replanning of seating arrangements and guidance on social distancing. There was evidence that all this disruption took its toll on transport workers – 64% selected the answer “I need to stop and regather” when asked about whether they felt, as an individual, they could sustain the levels of change they have been experiencing. However, the efforts to acclimatise have been laudable: “Immense disruption but organisation has worked hard to adapt,” was how one transport senior director put it.

The telecommunications industry, meanwhile, was also affected by the pandemic in irreversible ways, with reliable and fast broadband going from a luxury to a necessity for many forced to work from home. Cyber security also took on even greater importance as a result of home network vulnerabilities. More than two-thirds of critical infrastructure respondents (69%) revealed that their organisations made faster decisions during the pandemic. For example,some of the UK’s largest telecom companies announced that they would remove fixed-line broadband data caps as early as March 2020, adhering to Government plans to “ensure people are connected”.

Utilities companies also witnessed an acceleration in their plans. “Many organisations already had digital transformation programmes before the pandemic, but they have been accelerated,” Chris Cartwright, Head of Critical Infrastructure at Capita Consulting, told the Capita Institute’s Tomorrow’s Organisations podcast. E.ON, for instance, celebrated connecting its 10 millionth smart meter to Britain's national network this February. And, looking ahead, ResearchAndMarkets.com forecasts that the market for smart electricity meters will reach US$ 16.4 billion globally by the year 2027. Organisations have now moved from having to justify their outlay into digital tech to no longer being able to avoid heading in that direction.

One positive reported result of the pandemic was increased collaboration between organisations. Forty percent of respondents across sectors told us they are collaborating more with other organisations as a result of the pandemic, with critical infrastructure industries coming in at more or less the base level, with 38%. One respondent highlighted how “our industry has experienced better collaboration and agile thinking.”

As Chris shared, we need to capitalise on this increased shift towards collaboration and agility to further recognise the interdependency across the critical infrastructure sectors. For instance, “Transport take-up of electric vehicles and micro-transport like electric scooters is changing the demand profile of energy,” Chris said. But he stresses there is a bigger issue at play than just improving efficiency or boosting profits: “The key to decarbonising is a whole systems approach – transport, energy, telecoms, data and others, how they all relate to each other.”

Climate-related risk is, of course, not a new issue, and the current pandemic serves only as a stark reminder of the need to drastically combat such risks. Net-zero emissions by 2050 is the level of ambition the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says will be necessary to prevent global warming from rising above 1.5° Celsius and so avoid many of the worst of the potential climate change impacts. Energy providers across the globe, such as Endesa and National Grid, have committed to decarbonisation goals, but we are all better placed to reach these goals if we can work together and learn from each other, and that includes making inter-industry links.

Acting faster, working together, embracing agility, targeting sustainability goals – if the critical infrastructure sector can continue on this path, then there is a good chance that 2020 will come to be seen as an opportunity that was successfully taken. We’ll have an idea of how the sector has been getting on when we revisit our research in June, for the next of the four great opportunity debate surveys we are carrying out during 2021.

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