Transformation starts with us

New technology is demonstrated at an Atkins tech lab.

Digital transformation is not a theoretical concept, it can create a risk-taking environment where the design rule book can be re-written to benefit end users, says Philip Hoare.

I recently wrote an article for Politics Home outlining six ways we can transform our industry to improve productivity. Two of my suggestions focused on harnessing the power of digital to fundamentally change the way we operate as an industry. 

What struck me about the comments I received on the article is how many people agreed that digital can play a pivotal role in transformation – but only if we have the right behaviours in place. There was a strong sentiment that we can have access to all the technology in the world, but if we don’t use it in the right way, and with the right outcomes in mind, it won’t have the impact we expect it to.

There are some brilliant examples of where we’re helping the industry to embrace digital, not for the sake of it, but because it fundamentally changes operations, and more importantly, results for end-users.

One such example is the work Atkins is doing with Heathrow Airport to improve the passenger journey. Working in partnership with the airport, we’re helping them make the best use of technology and innovative ways of working to deliver tangible, lasting and enriched outcomes for their customers and stakeholders. 

One of the cornerstones of our approach is that digital transformation must be human-centric in approach and style. Technology is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. When biometrics are extended across Heathrow later this year, there will be technology integrated at every point of departure, from check-in to take-off – but what’s more significant is how it will transform the passenger’s experience of the airport, reducing queues and creating a seamless journey.  

While I am incredibly proud of the role Atkins is playing on projects such as Heathrow, I am also mindful that we as a company are using technology to improve the way we deliver to our clients. The infrastructure industry should be ambitious and confident to lead the revolution in modern design and realising the benefits it brings. 

Technology is providing us with new ways to accelerate, visualise and analyse design, but are we doing enough to harness its potential? Likewise, 3D and BIM give us new opportunities to collaborate, to rehearse construction and asset operation in a virtual world, and to improve the lives of end consumers – but where are the examples we can aspire to? 

"Design and construction should be an environment where we can take risks and aren't afraid to implement new technology and innovate on live projects, test the value of these approaches and use the lessons learned on future projects."

I believe that ‘digital transformation’ isn’t theoretical. Design and construction should be an environment where we can take risks and aren’t afraid to implement new technology and innovate on live projects; where we can test the value these approaches bring in real world scenarios, and use the lessons learned to scale up on future projects. 

A great example of this is the work Atkins has recently been selected for by Portsmouth Water to help design Havant Thicket Winter Storage Reservoir. Our aim here is to bring together the many innovations and different ways of working from across our business to bear on a single project, starting with our use of digital imagery to create a topographical map of the site. We believe if we apply these digital engineering approaches, we’ll see faster working and better collaboration between everyone involved in the project. 

The technologies we will be using – BIM, collaborative digital models that can be accessed in real-time, digital environmental impact assessments and design automation tools, to name a few – have all been tested elsewhere, so we know they can add value. These technologies will all combine to create a great outcome – a lasting, critical water resource for thousands of people in the local area. 

For me, transforming the way we design is about looking at how we add value. It’s about harnessing data and technology to rewrite how we design; getting things right first time; combining innovative business models; drawing on new skills and new ways of working; and creating entirely new forms of value.

We have an opportunity to boldly step into the future by truly modernising how we work. Once we’ve cracked this as an industry, we’ll be able to spend more time and energy on the creative elements of design and engineering that bring true benefit to our customers, and their customers – the end-users. 

Philip Hoare is UK and Europe CEO, SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins business. Follow Philip on Twitter @PhilHoare to keep up with his thoughts on transforming the industry.