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Can the YPP provide a new perspective on pressing infrastructure issues?

November 25, 2019

Infrastructure is all around us and vital for our continued prosperity and quality of life

By Henry Metcalf

Yet across the country, we all have very different experiences and uses of infrastructure. For example, a high-tech employee in the south may use super-fast broadband in the morning to work from home before taking a high-speed electric train for a meeting in the afternoon in a highly urbanised area, whereas a plastics manufacturer in the north may spend the morning waiting for a supplies delivery to arrive by lorry before consuming a large amount of electricity to create a product. The infrastructure you use on a daily basis likely affects your view on what infrastructure is important and where improvements should be made. But who can say theirs is the ‘right’ view?

Decisions in infrastructure tend to made by the industry’s leaders. These are the highly trained individuals with many years of experience that tend to run government organisations, large companies, design consultancies and so on. An example of industry leaders' decisions are the policy recommendations for infrastructure in the 2018 National Infrastructure Assessment published by the National Infrastructure Commission.

But, with all those years of experience, industry leaders tend to be older people who may not be familiar with the changing needs of younger generations. As such, the experiences and needs of young people can sometimes be overlooked. Helping to redress this is the National Infrastructure Commissions’ Young Professionals Panel or the YPP! We are a group of 16 young people working in engineering helping the National Infrastructure Commission understand the needs of younger people and to challenge ‘business as normal’. I was selected to join the panel following a nationwide competition along with 15 other ‘YPPers’. Inside work, being part of the YPP has improved my understanding of the different aspects of engineering and the wide range of professionals needed to deliver projects—and as such it has helped me come out of the ‘silo’ of the team I work in to see the bigger picture.

Our works so far include: Infracafes—open events where pressing infrastructure issues for young people are discussed with experts; a podcast series—Infra[un]structured exploring issues in-depth with an invited guest and a hackathon focusing on future infrastructure challenges. But our main work will be a unique piece of research into the generational shift by younger generations and its impact on infrastructure. This will examine how young people are living differently and how infrastructure policies should adapt to their needs.

Why is providing a new perspective useful? Young people’s living and working habits are different from older generations. For example, a 2018 report by the Chartered Institute of Professional Development found the uptake of flexible working practices is significantly higher amongst 16-19 year-olds than any other age group other than the over 70s. Similarly, research from the National Travel Survey shows car miles driven by men aged 17-34 and women aged 17-34 have been falling since 1998 whereas other age groups driving continues to grow. Likewise, the Department for Transport research shows the percentage of men and women aged 17-20 owning driving licenses has been falling since the early 1990s whilst overall the percentage of the UK population owning driving licenses is growing.

Key attitudes amongst young people also differ. For example, research by the University of the West of England found young people to be accepting of government policies to enforce ‘travel behaviour change’ in light of climate change. Globally too there is evidence showing young adults support policies that promote alternatives to car travel. Furthermore, not just in the UK but across several western countries there is a clear decline of youth driving licenses. Indeed, in America research shows activity patterns and the time use of Millennials and Generation X is leading to changing travel patterns.

What is causing these patterns amongst younger people? How will they play out in the future? Will these habits be reversed as younger people age? Working out these considerations and what the implications are for infrastructure policy is an important task which the YPP’s work is aiming to help with.

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