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CIOs take centre stage as firms go digital and contemplate changing business models

Microsoft's chief architect of data and artificial intelligence, Eric Charran, addressing delegates at the European CIO Conference.

A second annual event for chief information officers and technology professionals to explore the transformative opportunities of digital innovation for infrastructure delivery is taking place in London this week. 

The second European CIO conference brought together the sector’s IT leaders with experts from the world of technology to discuss the major issues facing the sector, including digitisation, big data, and their impact in changing business models.

The opening day of the event unveiled the results of a CIO survey which showed that the role of the chief information officer is changing to become a key part of the strategic leadership of professional services firms, usually with a place on the board and often reporting to the chief executive. Increasingly the CIO is better engaged at all levels across a company as the role of IT changes and becomes ever more critical as more than 50% of firms expect a fundamental change in their business models in the future. The survey also revealed that 65% of firms have a digital workplace strategy and that the CIO is playing the leading role in developing this.

Delegates at the event, held at the Royal Academy of Engineering, also heard from leading client organisations, including Gatwick Airport's CIO Cathal Corcoran, who described how the airport has undergone a major digital transformation in a bid to improve the experience for its 45 million annual passengers.

Gatwick’s CIO spoke about the challenges facing the major aviation hub as it continues to operate as the most efficient single-runway airport. As it runs close to capacity most of the time, it’s essential those behind the digital agenda continue to embrace new opportunities to ensure the airport remains at the forefront of aviation.

With 950 movements a day and 55 every hour on the runway, the level of complexity in operating is not found anywhere else in the world, according to Corcoran. The technology which is implemented across the airport looks to benefit more than 250 onsite businesses, 30,000 staff and 45 million annual passengers.

Corcoran talked about the numerous technologies which have been embraced to improve efficiencies. These include the use of drones to check for cracks in the runway – the most essential asset that needs protecting. Drones can help capture data and feed it back into software and help save hours of time being lost and millions in revenue.

Other components discussed to make the airport the most innovative in Europe include the largest self-service bag drop in the world, an early check-in bag store facility for customers who want to spend more time in the airport, a pioneering trial set to start this summer whereby the airport will use autonomous vehicles to create the “Uber of the airfield” and developments in machine learning to bolster security and develop passenger journey mapping so gate staff can track late running passengers and send notifications via a range of apps.

Addressing delegates at the conference, Microsoft's chief architect of data and artificial intelligence Eric Charran, highlighted some of the innovative technologies powering digital transformation. "Digital transformation is your way of deciding how you are going to disrupt your industry," said Charran, who also spoke about the need for digital experiences to be smart, fast, helpful and inclusive in order to encourage wider uptake. He also described Microsoft's development of AI and the company's work with users which was leading to the creation of apps which met and in many cases exceeded customers' needs.

The audience also got to hear from Peter Vale, engineering information manager of Thames Tideway. Working alongside Mott MacDonald, teams were tasked with providing leadership on a digital strategy within the planning and design stages on the largest water infrastructure project in the UK. The JV scheme involved work on the eastern section contract from Chambers Wharf to Abbey Mills, as well as a connection tunnel from Greenwich to central London.

Vale also discussed how adopting a digital agenda and prioritising a collaborative working environment was essential for all parties. BIM Wednesdays was a central part of this sharing of ideas where each Wednesday, all stakeholders could discuss challenges of the project in a location or by calling in via Skype to view models on smartboards and thus resolve issues that arose.

Embracing technological advancements could also bring about tangible benefits by achieving significant time savings which Tideway earmarked from the outset. Teams helped shave two years off the design programme by disregarding the usual exercise of producing 2D drawings because of the increased engagement in the model environment which ensured the same level of information exchange and design assurance.