Facing up to disruption

Information technology and digital devices are changing the design and management of infrastructure. For business across the sector, embracing this new world is vital but comes with vast challenges. Infrastructure Intelligence and software firm BST Global gathered together some forward thinking minds to discuss these challenges.

BST Forum with Infrastructure Intelligence

What are the emerging technology trends across infrastructure and how are they driving business of the future? How will the design of future infrastructure need to change to benefit from these trends? 

More specifically, do you have the talent your business needs to take advantage of the opportunities and serve the changing demands of clients?

These are just a few of the critical questions that currently exercise company bosses across the industry as the margins between physical and digital demands on infrastructure rapidly narrow.

Identifying the challenge

According to Jon White, Turner & Townsend UK managing director, the traditional technology challenges facing the sector still fall into discrete areas of the internal systems needed to manage your business and the external systems needed to support clients. 

Around the table

Ben Ashmore, regional director, BST Global 

Caroline Brown, chief operating officer, Penspen Group

Peter Campbell, senior policy manager, ACE

AndrewComer, partner,Buro Happold

Jonathan Hall, director, AHMM

Adrian Marsh, director, RSK Group Plc

Steve Mustow, director, WYG

Eduardo Niebles, managing director, international business, BST Global

Antony Oliver, editor, Infrastructure Intelligence

Scot Parkhurst, director, Tyrens

Jon White, managing director, UK, Turner & Townsend Plc

“But there is now a third area of data analytics,” he explained. “And while there are lots of ways to capture data the question is can you actually use it? Can you help your clients to make use of it to run their businesses better?”

Focus on client need, of course, remains the driver when it comes to setting up firms for business success. However, as White pointed out, the changing digital landscape means some rethinking around how best to meet the challenge.

“Technology should enable us to add more value to our clients,” explained White. “We are early in the journey and it is about explaining the benefits of technology to clients so they understand how we can use technology to drive more value into services.”

This underlines the clear feeling that the greatest emerging value of technology lies less with building business efficiencies – although that is, of course, a fundamental benefit - more around the use the data analytics to inform the way decisions are made and so deliver more value for clients.

Andrew Comer, partner at Buro Happold was forthright in his view that the industry was still slow to grasp this difference, remaining somewhat rooted in technology as a simply a tool for speeding existing traditional processes.

“I do think the whole industry is not alive to the challenges of technology and the changes that are going to take place over the next 5 to 10 years,” said Comer. 

“For me there are huge opportunities and huge risks. I really do believe the industry has to grip technology more deeply,” he added.

So yes, internally the challenge is about how technology is made to work harder to enable individuals to be better designers, engineers or planners and to deliver better products more efficiently and with better value to clients, he said.

But the next generation of professionals, he insisted, will also have an even greater challenge to work out how to use technology to improve the sustainable credentials of projects so as to holistically deliver, for example, much more effective and sustainable cities. 

“For engineers it is tough enough to get through the traditional technical training required,” he said. “So when we try to add on a more in depth understanding of the technology – not least given the pace at which it changes - there are currently very few engineers in the profession with the bandwidth to fully grasp the opportunities.” 

Understanding how you are going to use the data

This means there is a real and growing challenge around understanding how firms are going to use data to get some sort of competitive advantage, said Eduardo Niebles, BST Global managing director, international business.

“Your next generation of employees understand and gets it – the question is how do you prepare for that and entice people to come and work with you,” he said. “Technology and disruption is really about the next generation of people.”

And it is clearly this people factor that continues to exercise business leaders as they rush to take advantage of the technology revolution. That most likely means finding new and different skills.

“We have been thinking about our digital strategy and we realise that to attract the next generation we must really embrace new technology,” explained Caroline Brown, chief operating officer at Penspen Group. 

“We are coming around to the realisation that, particularly in the oil and gas parts of our business, we are facing a demographic time bomb with so many of our senior staff about to retire,” she said “We have got to bring in new people and those new people think and work very differently.”

“We have an opportunity with the technology that we are introducing to actually draw new people into engineering and infrastructure, As an industry we have to show young people how we can draw them in.” Joh White, Turner and Townsend

Yet the question remains how deep the knowledge of technology should be amongst infrastructure professionals, said Brown, asking whether anyone around the table could code – and whether it was in fact necessary. 

And while BST’s Niebles agreed that built environment professionals would have to lift their gaze towards the data driven future, he was not convinced the new skills would necessarily take professionals that far from their traditional skills. 

“I don’t think you necessarily need to know how to code but you are going to have to have new skills sets developing within the sector,” he said, suggesting titles such as “certified BIM designer” or “certified engineering developer” would start to emerge. 

“I definitely see new skill sets being developed in response to this disruptive technology,” he said. “The firm that figures out how to take data, combine it with new talent and create new skill sets will be the one that ends up leading. The ones that don’t will be left behind.” 

Winning the “War on Talent”

Jon White agreed, pointing out that to win the current war on talent it was crucial that this challenge was seen as an opportunity.

“We have an opportunity with the technology that we are introducing to actually draw new people into engineering and infrastructure,” he said. “As an industry we have to show young people how we can draw them in.”

Often, the discussion heard, that simply means using technology to help young people be better professionals - more creative and more able to respond to a challenge.

“The challenge is always about having enough of the right staff – people who are intelligent, personable and bright,” said Jonathan Hall, director of architect Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM) 

“They don’t necessarily need to know the technology when they arrive as they will quickly get up to speed – the key is that they are bright enough to know when to use it,” he added. 

“Ultimately everything comes back to clients and the ability to support our clients – that means giving the staff the right tools and technologies,” Stuart Mustow, WYG

This ability to use and benefit from technology while still remaining focused on the core task of design and management of infrastructure was echoed elsewhere.

“The one thing that most commonly comes out among staff is the desire for professional development and becoming better professionals,” said Adrian Marsh, director at RSK, highlighting that this didn’t necessarily mean they would be driven toward IT skills at the expense of engineering skills. 

“As new software becomes available we will introduce it and train people but they are also keen to develop their underlying skills,” he added. “But the trend with IT should be to be able to gather and analyse more and more data with less and less staff input time.”

Standardisation globally

Steve Mustow, director, WYG highlighted that as digital applications became increasingly embedded into life, the spread and adoption of technology had started to affect all areas of business with, social media now central to recruitment and marketing activity. 

“We are in a very exciting place,” he said. “We are now employing the first generation who have had computers at their fingertips all their lives. I don’t think that we as businesses have really worked it out yet. As an industry we have got to get there as fast as we can.”

One of the challenges, he said, has been to standardise business processes internationally so as to maximise the benefits of technology and data. 

“Ultimately everything comes back to clients and the ability to support our clients – that means giving the staff the right tools and technologies,” he added.

Scot Parkhurst, managing director of the UK arm of Swedish consultancy Tyrens agreed pointing out the challenge of a firm with 30 offices in Sweden but four offices across the rest of Europe.

“The key thing is the need for businesses to remain flexible,” Peter Campbell, senior policy manager at ACE.

“We are perhaps not really that well integrated with the core business and all the benefits that this brings,” he explained. 

“It is quite a challenge – how do you take that good practice from Sweden and incorporate it in the European,” he said. “How can I maximise the knowledge base – the technology isn’t currently set up for a global business.”

Systems that are easy to use will be the key to success, he added, pointing out the link between good information and the ability to make decisions. 

“The key thing is the need for businesses to remain flexible,” said Peter Campbell, senior policy manager at ACE. “Today we are talking about BIM. In five years it will be something else and in 20 years it will be a wholly different territory. You need agility and the ability to move quickly and embrace young people and their knowledge of digital technology.”

If you would like to contact Antony Oliver about this, or any other story, please email