Elspeth Finch

UK & Europe

Elspeth is a former UK innovation director at Atkins. During her time with Atkins, Elspeth played a key role in the redesign of London's Oxford Circus and led the team responsible for producing Future Proofing Cities, a comprehensive report looking at the challenges of global urbanisation and solutions to manage it. Elspeth was elected as one of the eleven UK Young Global Leaders for 2010 by the World Economic Forum, and in 2013 was awarded the Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal, in recognition of achieving significant commercial success and advancing the cause of engineering in the UK.

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Scenario planning can bring better solutions

Wind the clock back 15 years. The UK was almost brought to a standstill by protests at oil refineries and fuel shortages. Why? Because oil had increased from $10 to $30 per barrel and there were concerns that the price of petrol was going to break the £1 per litre mark, putting thousands of companies out of business and causing hardship for millions.

Fast forward to 2015. Doomsday never arrived and discussion is now all about when we will break the £1 per litre barrier the other way having been above this level for almost a decade. This isn’t the only time when a crystal ball would have been useful. London’s population wasn’t supposed to reach 8.6M until 2026. This figure will be reached a decade early.

In 2000 we didn’t even know London would host the Olympics, let alone that it would be one of the most successful ever. And the Tour de France having a Yorkshire stage off the back of a UK cycling revolution? Nobody saw that coming.

These are interesting facts, but what is the relevance for engineers? It is simply that engineers are asked to design and build infrastructure that in most cases has a life well over 50 years. So how can we possibly ensure what we do today is relevant and resilient in the years ahead?

At Atkins we have been using scenario planning as one of the tools to think in a structured way about the future. Rather than trying to predict a single outcome, it enables us to test different future worlds and find a solution which covers the most eventualities. Engineers have the skills to ask the “what if” questions and then take a systematic approach to reviewing risks and uncertain­ties. We can then use our creativity and storytelling to bring these worlds to life.

The water industry accounts for about 3% of the UK’s energy usage so two years ago we asked ourselves about the impact energy price swings could have on the sector. With an abundance of cheap energy we identified risks, particularly for sustainability.

Cheap fossil fuels could slow down investment in renewable energy, plus cheap energy could help keep water prices low, which in turn could lead to customers using resources less conservatively. We also saw opportunities. For example cheap energy could support an increase in UK manufacturing which in turn leads to increased industrial water usage. Like us, we know water companies are using this approach to maximise opportunities and manage their risks better.

In these uncertain times, there is value in us working together as an industry to think though the changes we may face, and how we maxi­mise the resources we have available to us.

So let’s ask the questions and consider different scenarios.

For example, what will be the impact of driverless vehicles on our cities and how will digital engineering change how we design buildings and structures?

We may not always agree what the future may look like, but perhaps when we get to 2030 we will have made better decisions along the way.

Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa, North America, Rest of World, UK & Europe,

If the 2,000-year-old Pantheon in Rome, which is famously made of concrete, is anything to go by they will be around for many years to come. But what will be the innovation in materials that will shape our cities and infrastructure in the future?

Our cities are changing and our lifestyles are getting broader and faster. We need our infrastructure to be bigger (or in some cases smaller), better and smarter, but at the same time cheaper, quicker and less disruptive to install and operate.

A brief look outside our industry would open our eyes to a wide range of alternative materials and techniques that chemists, materials scientists and other engineers are busy developing.

So the answers to the challenges we face may already exist; we just need to adopt and apply them to deliver the infrastructure we need.

To focus on a few, 3D printed, self-healing and composite materials are all exciting prospects. Composite materials are already being used to create lightweight structures that are more versatile, quicker and easier to install and offer huge cost savings over the course of their lives.

The idea of printing buildings with a 3D printer could accelerate repetitious home building to help resolve our housing crisis and provide quick emergency shelters in areas of disaster relief. Even the evolution of our tried and tested friend, concrete, to become a living material which has the ability to repair itself could deliver increased resilience to our infrastructure.

Some materials are already being used, but there is much more room for improvement. If they are to be adopted successfully by our industry we will need to answer some tough questions.

Will they meet our sustainability requirements? What will they cost during their lifetime? Will legislation and standards change to have the foresight to allow their usage? How do we secure a supply chain against competition from other industries? How confident are we that these innovative materials will be around for the foreseeable future?

We have many exciting opportunities to innovate using new materials. But going back to my original question, they should be used because they offer the best solution, rather than because we think we should.

As much as I welcome new materials I also love seeing how cities are defined by the local materials that they are made of: the sandstone of Glasgow, the honeyed stone of the Cotswolds and London’s Stock Bricks.

So let’s not consign these traditional materials to the past. Instead let’s create a new legacy where new and old are brought together to retain the character of our cities and make our buildings and infrastructure the best it can be.

Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa, North America, Rest of World, UK & Europe,

Innovation is a word on everyone’s lips in our industry. There’s a danger it simply becomes a buzzword with little meaning and even less action. However, it will be vital for successfully tackling some of the major challenges around infrastructure and cities which will shape our future.

Going back to basics, innovation is often confused with ideas or inventions, but they are very different. Unless you can transform imagination into something real which creates value it simply remains an idea, not innovation.

Innovators don’t even have to be the ones to come up with the original ideas, they just need the foresight to be able to spot the good ones and develop them to deliver a tangible benefit, whether for clients, end users or themselves – preferably all three.

When it comes to infrastructure there are several drivers increasing the demand for innovation. These mostly fit under one of three headings: boosting efficiency; better managing risk; or matching the evolving needs of customers, consumers or a rapidly changing environment. Since 2007 cost reduction has been the dominant requirement for major infrastructure owners who are under pressure to deliver more for less. However, with the economy recovering, the significance of the other two is increasing and in many cases infrastructure owners are looking beyond price and choosing a creative solution which delivers better all-round value.

Innovation doesn’t generally happen in a vacuum and will often need people and companies to work together to apply an idea successfully. In some cases, formal partnerships offer the best approach so expertise can be combined in a way which encourages a true sharing of information and joined up problem solving. This approach certainly worked for Atkins when we joined with Laing O’Rourke to develop a standardised approach to creating new schools for future generations in a time and cost efficient manner.

There is no single approach to innovation, but those who are most successful at it do tend to share some common traits. They have the knowledge and insight of markets and emerging trends, risks, latest technology and thinking. They keep their eyes open to developments in other industries and a have a solid understanding of the challenge in front of them. They are also prepared to modify and apply this wider knowledge to their specific problem and respond quickly to their environment. Finally, they know when the time is right to pitch or implement their new thinking.

The good news is that designers, engineers and scientists are natural problem solvers. Therefore, the step to being innovators is not as big as one may think, and in many cases people are doing it already and just don’t realise. So next time you are working on a problem, don’t just think back to your education, training and experience, take the time to look in another direction for inspiration. Most importantly have the confidence and tenacity to take two steps forward and possibly half a step back in order to get things right. The reward will be worth it.

UK & Europe,