John Drever

UK & Europe

John was responsible for setting up and managing an innovation centre to encourage, capture, evaluate and commercialise ideas. In his opinion pieces, John shared his journey, ideas and thoughts on innovation.

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I am currently leading a project for Atkins in Niteworks – a Defence industry partnership which is governed and funded by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) – to develop a new operating model to help overcome this particular challenge. The model is being piloted on a project to take advantage of new hardware and software currently being trialled on the submarine HMS Artful to rapidly deploy new software-based capability.

This work is based on a concept developed within Niteworks called Continuous Capability Evolution (CCE). This approach has been successfully used on some of the most innovative and fast-moving digital projects I have seen in recent years.

The operating model we have developed to represent the CCE concept is employed alongside Agile techniques (replacing the old ’top-down‘ processes) driving continuous evolution, i.e. there is always a pipeline of work underway at various stages of development.

Avoiding the digital innovation valley of death


The model introduces three major new elements to the organisation:

  1. A fully integrated digital Innovation Hub: This is part of the business-as-usual (BAU) organisation, charged with inspiring new ideas, functionality and ways of using the existing systems. The Hub acts as both the conduit for innovation and as ringmaster, initiating research, hackathons, forming new ideas and projects. Innovation is the new BAU, driven by ideas, technology, research and user needs.
  2. User and innovator programme accelerator: This is an event organised by the Innovation Hub bringing together the users and innovators to dynamically assess new ideas, requirements and technology. Inputs to this decision accelerator include customer aims, prototypes, UX mock-ups and designs. Outputs include roadmaps, research aims and projects.
  3. User domain technology platforms: In this example there are three distinct user domain platforms:
  • A research and development (R&D) platform, similar to the deployed system but with next generation hardware and middleware for use in the lab to try out new ideas and new technologies
  • A User Experience (UX) platform that is a close representation of the deployed user system to test the impact of new prototypes with real operators and users
  • The real deployed platform.

There may be many more platforms depending upon the service, but the important point is that the flow of new ideas across all platforms is continuous. On this specific pilot project, for example, there might be several R&D projects, some UX experiments and a few new deployed updates active at any one time.

The benefits of moving to this model are:

  1. More efficient R&D expenditure through better conversion of ideas to new capability
  2. More beneficial engagement of users with relevant content
  3. Better supply chain engagement and innovation pull through
  4. The ability to engage new suppliers and small/medium enterprises.

Although the approach is being road-tested on this pilot project, the model is widely applicable across many problem areas and both Atkins and the MOD are looking to employ it in other environments. I look forward to seeing how this innovative approach helps to take new ideas from inception through to the creation of deployable systems and new capabilities, across Defence and beyond.

I’d like to close by thanking the MOD for their permission to use this work. This is Crown Copyright ©, reproduced with permission.

UK & Europe,

In the Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare’s Antonio says: “Experience is by industry achieved, And perfected by the swift course of time.” In engineering we can learn and gain knowledge, but competence is being able to apply that knowledge to real world problems.

The opportunities to practice engineering skills on equipment at the scale and complexity of a real system are few and far between. As an industrial plant manager you wouldn’t want to let raw under-graduates loose on your control system!

However, I recently had the opportunity to visit an amazing example of this in an academic environment at Imperial College, London. The department of Chemical Engineering there has designed and built a fully functioning industrial quality carbon capture system in the heart of the city. This occupies four storeys of the university and has its own impressive control room.

This facility enables students to gain hands-on experience and hone their skills with a live operational system. The system itself has 250 sensors of every kind imaginable, measuring flow, temperature, pressure etc. all connected to a dual–redundant process control system. Communications are just as varied with students being able to practice with traditional wired protocols and state-of-the-art wireless sensors. Some of these sensors are even powered from the heat generated in the system itself.

Process plant
As we toured the facility I saw many examples of high-end process engineering.

Professor Nina Thornhill and Dr Daryl Williams from the Chemical Engineering department provided me with a tour of the plant and their associated laboratory which is dedicated to process control and automation. As we toured the facility I saw many examples of high-end process engineering.

Aptly, they call this the ‘ChemEng Discovery Space’. Students at Imperial College get the opportunity to understand the design process for complex chemical plant and the operational process control systems. But it isn’t just a test bed for process control, it is also one of the world’s most advanced carbon-capture pilot systems. They are pushing forward the boundaries of this planetary issue.

Our last stop was in the control room where they showed me how the CCTV cameras around the plant were configured and controlled via the control system to be able to zoom-in on any of the sensors selected.

I was very pleased to see that academia can invest in the same technology that large corporate organisations can. Building up the capacity of experienced and capable industrial control and automation engineers is challenging due to the lack of complexity of systems for them to cut their teeth upon. As such I’m encouraged that many of the current crop of graduates coming through institutions like Imperial College will have developed industry level experience that will allow them to quickly adapt to working life outside academia.

Are you aware of other examples of similar facilities that allow students to get hands on engineering experience with real systems? If so, please let me know in the comments below.

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

As engineers we spend considerable time trying to understand user requirements. Having a good set of requirements makes our lives easier because we can then follow standard systems engineering methodologies to ensure that we create something that the user wants and needs.

Over time systems have become ever more complex and interconnected and now involve users in a much richer way. As a result we developed the notion of identifying the need for ‘capabilities’ rather than ‘systems’. So instead of having a conversation about “I want a new X system” we now talk about “I want the capability to do Y.”

Interestingly, this approach can potentially be applied to help us develop the cities we live in. But when we come to think about city development both the scale of the systems engineering challenge and the complexity reach an order of magnitude greater than even the most complex of military, aerospace or IT systems.

For example:

  • The ‘user needs’ are the needs of the entire, extremely varied population
  • All the systems are interconnected in highly complex ways.
  • The systems we create need to consider both the physical form of the city and the character of its citizens.

Below are some thoughts around techniques we may have to develop in order to address these complexities.

1. A ‘systems of systems’ approach for cities

Fundamentally, cities can be considered to be ‘systems of systems’ i.e. a collection of independent systems (transport, core infrastructure, IT etc.) that together form a new, more complex system (the city as a whole).

In other realms of engineering we have developed various methods to talk and think about a system of systems. These each provide a platform for systems engineers to talk to users about their requirements in a rich and meaningful way and then translate those into a language that system designers can use.

By adopting this approach in the city space we can develop a way of describing cities, their functions and form, where planners, architects and engineers can all understand their ‘view’ into the city as a system of systems.

Taking this approach provides enormous potential benefits for the development of cities, including:

  • reducing the risks of integration and interoperability issues between city systems
  • improving the re-use of systems to perform other city tasks without having to buy additional systems
  • improving the management of obsolescence and system replacement.

2. Using surveys as a city requirements sourcing tool

Cities are so complex, and the stakeholders’ demands so diverse, that the requirements analysis processes we would normally employ need to be supplemented with other innovative methods.

One such method is to use surveys to understand citizens’ aspirations for their city. This approach obviously cannot reach all citizens, so this technique needs to be used with great care. However, it can uncover some great results, particularly where citizens have the opportunity to offer free-form or open comments in the survey.

3. Developing a city capability framework

When we set about building new city infrastructure we need to gain an understanding of the ecosystem in which it will operate. This ecosystem may also require change as a result of the new build.

Using the implementation of a new mass transit system as an example, we would need to:

  • understand the impact to the Governance of the City
  • add this new mass transit system into the city information management system in use
  • understand the impact on protecting people, their property, the environment and infrastructure
  • ensure that this change to the transport system has a detailed project plan and is part of a wider city transport plan
  • manage the introduction of the new mass transit system as a programme
  • create a new operations enterprise as part of the programme with standard operations, HR, finance, commercial, governance and reporting functions that would transition to ‘business as usual’ status on completion of the programme.
  • sustain all the systems that combine to become the mass transit system over time.

Here is a model I have created to help me think about cities in this way. For those from a defence background, I have used the Defence Capability Framework (DCF) as inspiration!

Cities capability framework
Cities capability framework

The concept of applying systems engineering to the evolution of our future cities is still very much a work in progress. However, I believe that by adopting these three techniques we can better address the complexities of a city and therefore develop our cities through the application of a systems engineering approach.

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


When I first started in my post as innovation director I interviewed staff across our Communications business to gather examples of particularly innovative ideas. Coming from a systems engineering background I was aware of mapping for situational awareness, but I was hugely surprised when I found out the variety of other clever uses our Geospatial team have been making of spatial data.

Thanks to advances in digital mapping (Geographical Information Systems) and information manipulation there are a whole range of problems we can now solve. These include:

Optimal siting of large and complex engineering projects

Finding the optimal location for large engineering projects like wind farms, nuclear power plants or complex road/rail routing is essential to ensure that they have good transport links, appropriate access and are sympathetic to any local population centres.

Traditionally this has been achieved by using Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis spreadsheets, which are large and unwieldy, paper maps and physically visiting site locations during the early stage of site selection – the equivalent of a desk based study in today’s money.

However, our Geospatial team has taken spatial data from a variety of sources and layered them upon one another within a Geographical Information System. Some of the criteria taken into account include locations of international designations under the European Habitat directive (e.g. Special Areas of Conservation), listed buildings, slope gradients, population centres or the proximity of existing highway infrastructure.

Identifying the best roofs for siting solar panels and power calculation

Working out which roofs will enjoy the most uninterrupted sunlight is key when determining where to place solar panels. To achieve this we used stereoscopic imagery and mapping to create a 3D topographical map. This allowed us to model shadows and incident lighting on sloping roofs, providing a much higher level of accuracy in calculating the possible power outputs. It also allows us to optimise the types of solar panels installed.

Other uses of these techniques include:

  • determining line of sight for communications and CCTV siting
  • assisting with flood prediction
  • Forecasting the effect that changing a city’s skyline would have on existing infrastructure.

Identifying which houses are most at risk from lead piping

One of our most innovative uses of mapping came through a project to identify which of over 2 million homes might be most at risk from old lead plumbing. Lead piping is a real public health issue because it increases the level of potentially harmful lead found in drinking water. Given the sheer volume of properties involved it would take forever to sift through all the land registry archives to find out when a property was built and whether lead piping was in use at that time.

To address this challenge, we obtained and digitised maps from various eras and used a filtering engine to identify where new properties first appeared. We could further filter this data for dates when lead piping was phased out helping to highlight ‘at-risk’ properties.

Measuring cable lengths required for railway systems without going track-side

Historically any measuring, installation or repairs to rail trackside cables have been undertaken by people in often dangerous environments. The aim of this project was to help remotely assess the lengths of rail trackside cables more accurately in order to improve efficiency, reduce trackside side time and thereby reduce risk to rail infrastructure staff as a result. This solution involved layering 3D terrain mapping over existing 2D maps to identify accurate slope lengths.

Understanding the past to build the future

We are also undertaking research in partnership with the British Library to analyse the value of historical vectorised (each building being its own entity) mapping data by digitising the 1886 City of London.

The results of this project will not only be interesting for residents who want to know what their street was like in the past, but might also be relevant for various specialists such as planners who need to better understand the status of the ground under existing buildings and any potential contamination that might exist.


UK & Europe,

When we engage with students at universities, colleges and schools for STEM events we are often asked about our careers, how we got to where we are and what we are working on now. We also let students know about how to enter the world of engineering. However, increasingly students want to know about what exciting projects they might be involved with in the future. I took a quick poll of staff in Atkins and we came up with some interesting thoughts and challenges:

Floating City

‘Floating’ cities and ports: As climate change continues to take effect and flooding becomes more of an issue our engineers see a need to create cities that rise with the water level; perhaps even creating communities that are entirely water-based. This will pose a challenge on the materials we can use as well as utilities, waste and transportation. However, such floating cities will have large upside benefits like self contained wave power generation and passive cooling. Perhaps ‘Boris Island’ will come to fruition as a new living space rather than an airport.

Interested disciplines: civil engineering, structural engineers, water and waste management, power generation, environmental management

Mars base

Mars and Moon-based structures: When it comes to living on different planets there are many more questions than answers from our staff! What building techniques would be relevant for a moon-base and how would that differ from Mars? What are the telecommunications challenges in such a harsh environment? Are there ideas that will be developed from these communities that would drive new thinking on Earth, such as maximising resources and recycling everything? Does either the Moon or Mars have the right materials for manufacturing or would we need to take them with us? What would the life support systems look like? It is these sorts of questions that need to be answered through scientific research and engineering.

Interested disciplines: civil engineering, structural engineers, water and waste management, power generation, communications, environmental science

atlas robot

Robotics and automation: Robots have been working alongside humans for some time in manufacturing, but they have been largely single task and fairly static; we even build safety cages around them to prevent co-workers getting injured. Our design and safety engineers are very interested in the implications of robots becoming more mobile and taking more decisions that might affect us, such as surgical operations, driving our cars, carrying heavy objects, etc. But what issues might this raise? The mining industry, for example, has identified interesting emergent issues from automated trucks causing excessive wear and tear on road surfaces because they all continuously travel down the exact same path to centimetre accuracy! There are many applications for robotics, from health and social care to delivering the mail, and our human factors engineers are interested in how humans will really interact with such robots.

Interested disciplines: systems engineers, software and safety engineers, ergonomics and human factors engineers


Future City Form and Function: Our cities are becoming ever more populated, complex and intelligent. Our understanding of the way citizens interact with their city will need to be more sophisticated for us to really understand the relationships between the two. We think that there will be a revolution in how we analyse, design and build cities that takes into account all the disparate views, from sociology, planning, building, transport, communications and systems of systems engineering.

Interested disciplines: systems engineers, civil engineers and data scientists. And engineers will have to talk to sociologists!

IET logo montage

Engineers and politics: Many of our engineers expressed the opinion that they would like to see policy and legislation driven by science and engineering rather than just politics. This would require the direct involvement of engineers. The engineering community is large and multinational with a growing influence that we think will exert itself more in the future. More citizens will feel engaged by engineering and engineers will be visible in the public eye. But how will they cope with this additional level of scrutiny?

Interested disciplines: all engineers!

A final thought:
All the ideas I have written about here are based on a short email poll I undertook in Atkins. However, it is worth noting that all the projects I describe are actually in progress. For example, the robot shown is the Atlas Robot prototype from Boston Dynamics (now owned by Google), MarsOne is a real project based in Holland and is already training astronauts, and the China Communications Construction Company is investigating floating cities (reported in the Telegraph in June this year).

Images sourced from:

UK & Europe,

Given the scope of this topic, my first thought was, “wow, that’s a wide remit!” We could potentially be looking across a wide range of possibilities. What were the constraints or areas of focus we wanted to address?

We managed to narrow this down to a workable area of focus, specifically a small cosmopolitan UK city that is primarily interested in generating economic wealth as well as improving the environment and living conditions of its inhabitants.

With this brief, I found some communications, software, control systems and data analytics staff to join-in the session with our marketing department. We now had the right mix of people, knowledge and skills, but how best to draw all of that out during the session?

Idea creation

As I wanted to get the left and right brain elements talking together, I decided upon a “brainstorming by analogy” idea creation strategy with a bit of something called “brain-writing” thrown-in for good measure.

Left/Right brain

I first presented this cartoon of the brain to the participants and then explained the context of the problem, clearly outlining our brief and our area of focus for the day.

The scene was now set for the discussion, but what were the questions that we wanted to address?

Choosing the right questions and the right analogy

In Atkins’ communications division we deal with data and its generation, communication, analysis and usage. As such, it seemed like a good idea for us to think about the problem as a giant control room with any information available that we wanted.

The questions therefore became easy to identify:

  • What information would be required for the control room’s dashboard?
  • Why would that information be required?
  • What benefit would be gained from having that information?

To make this come to life, I struck on the idea of using The Numskulls from the Beano comic. These were tiny characters living inside a human’s head and which controlled their every move.

In order to help drive divergent thinking, I asked each of the session participants to imagine that they were one of the Numskulls. I then gave everyone two minutes to write a list of what “real-time” data they would want in order to effectively control their human and another minute to list the “long term” planning data they would need. This is the “brain-writing” part.

Going around the table, we asked each person to give me one idea from their list and allowed them to add more if they thought of something else.

We transformed this list of “human control” data to “city control” data and started to look at its benefits and utility. Then the creative juices started to flow.

Our minds were now in the right state to start to innovate so when we talked about the data, and particularly the benefits, other completely new ideas sprang into existence.

As Paul Daniels used to say: “And that’s magic!”

The key steps to brainstorming by analogy

So here are my five key tips to get brainstorming participants to use the left and right sides of their brains in your session:

  • Narrow down the subject or brief to make sure you get what you want and need from the session
  • Ensure you invite people with different areas of experience, knowledge or skills to offer diversity of input
  • Clearly set the scene for your participants so everyone understands the context
  • Choose the right questions and the right analogy
  • Engage your participants’ imagination to drive creativity and innovation

Brain cartoon by Cartoon a Day (Source).

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

Setting out to create an innovation centre in our Communications business, I was keen to avoid some of the horror stories that pervade the literature on innovation. I’m old enough (only just) to remember the Osborne Computer Corporation. For those fresher-faced readers, have a look on Wikipedia. It was a company with a high degree of innovation that failed to effectively commercialise their ideas, and take account of the market and technology trends. The picture of their portable computer is worth seeing though (I actually used one of those but it was very old and dusty!).

A friend told me recently about an innovation initiative where the business they worked for opened up an ‘ideas box’ and received over 700 ideas from the staff. Unfortunately only three were deemed worthy of taking forward as innovation projects.

So what makes a good idea a good innovation?

I like to use a simple Venn diagram to explain my thoughts on this:

innovation venn diagram

I want to set the conditions in our Communications business such that we self-select towards the sweet-spot in the centre (although some of the other intersections are worth paying attention to).

The seven ingredients for successful innovation

Here is a framework we developed for innovation in Atkins that I am using in the Communications business:

1. Business plan: Define your business goals, vision and strategy then communicate them to the people you want to be innovative (that’s all the staff!)

New Innovation Framework2. Reflect your Business Plan in some innovation challenges, this helps your staff come up with ideas that might be strategically aligned. Bear in mind though that game changing ideas might go against your existing strategy!

3. Keep an eye on the market, technology trends and other external factors. What are they saying about the future opportunities for your business?

4. Develop a pipeline process. Score and rank your ideas and get a balanced portfolio of innovation projects through the process. Force some ideas into the funnel using the usual techniques (and try some unusual ones!)

5. Encourage and support the culture of innovation in your people and structure Define what you mean by innovation and make sure that all the elements of the culture are in place to support what you are doing. I use Johnson and Scholes’ Cultural Web (see below) as my bible.

Cultural web

6. It’s a team game!Unless you are working in a super-secret environment, you should seek help from a wide range of your innovation network.

7. Understand your exploitation route. Don’t forget that you need to make money from your ideas! And tell your colleagues about it too as they might be able to exploit your innovation in ways you’d never think off.

If you get these seven ingredients right then you are well on the way to successful innovation.

UK & Europe,

Why we designed our organisation with innovation at its heart

When I came to write this first piece, I found myself looking back over 25 years in business and thinking about the organisations I have worked in and what they were like. I have found myself being reorganised in organisations where regular change became the norm. Unfortunately, it always seemed as though re-organisations start with a shuffling of the deck chairs at the top of the business – followed by a re-alignment to functional, project, market or various matrix permutations – depending on the current state of the business and usually at the whim of the incoming MD!

Times have changed and when we recently re-organised in Atkins’ Communications business we took an entirely strategy-centric approach to our organisational design, based on Tracey & Wiersema’s Value Discipline model (below left). Once we decided on our strategy could we then start looking at our value creating processes and only at step 3 (below right) we started to think about the actual organisational structure.


Our business’ strategic aspiration is to become more focused on product and service leadership and the values we want to inspire in the business to drive growth are:

  • a focus on technical excellence to enable innovative solutions to be provided;
  • an ability to bundle different services/solutions to gain maximum market share of services globally; and
  • building on our existing capability foundation and developing solutions in line with customer and market needs.

In Atkins’ Communications business we identified many drivers for change and the external ones aligned 100% with the drivers identified by Sheth and Ram’s seminal paper on ‘Bringing innovation to market’ (see below). It was obvious that we needed to focus on innovation at an organisational level.


So the new financial year starts with a new organisation for the Communications business built on solid strategic choices. Our four new directors are in place and I’m very excited to have been selected as Innovation Director, particularly with the engineering, project and business management talent already evident in the business. I’m looking forward to seeing what new services, products, clients and markets await us in the future. And what new capabilities we will need to develop to address these.

My vision is to create an innovation centre that will cultivate and harness the creativity in the business to provide tangible commercial benefits. To do that I need to be totally in tune with the issues and challenges facing our customers now and in the future, so a strong interaction with the business development community will be vital. We also need to proactively develop new and innovative services and capabilities, so a close proximity to the engineering and project delivery functions is also important.

I want to capture the great ideas and inventions that are happening already on Atkins’ ICT projects and see how we can make them work for our other customers. To make this all happen we need to ensure that the competence of our staff is developed so that they continually innovate on behalf of our clients. Basically I want to use innovation to put Atkins on the map as a leading ICT consultancy!

UK & Europe,