Mike McNicholas

UK & Europe

Mike is managing director of Atkins' design and engineering business. He joined Atkins in the 80s as a graduate civil engineer and during his time with the company has been pivotal in the delivery of a great variety of projects, operating across all elements of the project lifecycle. He has worked on projects in a number of countries including Dubai, Oman, Vietnam, Cyprus, Iran and Thailand, and in 2012 was the project director for Atkins’ work on the London 2012 Olympic Park.

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The more I think about it though, the more I’m interested in the unanswered question for our industry – what impact can designers and engineers make on building a better city for all? 

To make this a city that truly benefits everyone, we need to focus the planning, design and delivery of our infrastructure on outcomes. This means recognising that infrastructure is a means to an end - an enabler of everyday life - and is there to make a positive impact on people’s lives. We can no longer deliver just another new building or road. From the earliest stages of planning, we need to be thinking about how our infrastructure can create better results for every Londoner. ‘A City For All Londoners’ talks about ensuring planning isn’t myopically focused on one amenity without seeing the big picture – the only way we can do this is by being clear at the outset what outcomes we want to see at the end of a project, and planning our infrastructure so that we achieve all of those outcomes. 

For me, excellent infrastructure delivery isn’t just about completing a project on time and on budget – it’s about doing it right, doing it once and doing it smarter. We can’t do this in today’s world without a clear understanding of outcomes. For design and engineering consultancies, this means more collaboration, efficiency and disruptive thinking, and delivering on our promises. It means outcome focused delivery, enabled by technology and data. If we do this in a wholly integrated way - looking not just at a new station or housing development in isolation, but at placemaking, with all of the social infrastructure that creates thriving communities for people to work and live - then we can achieve the Mayor’s ambitions for London to be a growing, inclusive city.

Read Atkins’ full response to ‘A City For All Londoners’


UK & Europe,

The Rio 2016 Games opens next week. Can you believe it’s been four years since the London 2012 Games? Four years since the Olympics and Paralympics were all any engineer or designer in London could talk about. Four years since our industry came together to deliver best in class infrastructure that put London on the world stage in a big way.

When I look back on our London 2012 work I’m reminded of the Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger). We really took this to heart when we were working on the Games, and pushed ourselves to deliver everything better – to be quicker, more agile and efficient and to do everything at a better quality. Everything we did had to be fit not only for the needs of the Games, but for the needs of future visitors and residents to East London.

As we prepare for this wonderful summer of sport to reach its crescendo I think now is a good time to reflect on what London 2012 can teach us about delivering infrastructure for London in 2016. 

If we treated every other infrastructure project in London like we did the Olympics just think what we could achieve. Building 50,000 Homes a year, for example, would be planned, managed and delivered just like the Olympics, with everyone moving in the same direction and committed to an excellent outcome, in a challenging timeframe.

There are a few basic approaches I believe we can take on other London infrastructure projects to give them that ‘Olympic gold’ standard.

  • Invest time upfront – the more time invested upfront, the greater our chance of success. For the London 2012 Games we started working before contracts were even awarded; we need that same momentum and planning to solve London’s housing crisis 
  • Build common ground – to make major infrastructure projects happen everyone needs a sense of common purpose, common values and common partnership
    Use our experts – get the best minds in the industry involved. London 2012 showed the world that the UK has world-class engineers and designers; we need to get these same people working towards delivering London’s future infrastructure
  • Make the silos disappear – when we deliver big infrastructure the lines are always blurred, whether that’s between disciplines, industries or companies; our only focus should be on the end game
  • Be adaptable – design everything for adaptability and re-use, we can only imagine what the future holds, so we always need to think ‘How else could this infrastructure be used?’
  • Engage hearts and minds – in 2012 we didn’t just see figures, we saw London’s vision to provide an Olympic and Paralympic Games like no other and we wanted to be a part of that; we need to give the infrastructure sector a vision of what London could be if all of the houses, schools, hospitals, businesses and green spaces we need for a happy, healthy, productive city were in place

Massive projects like the London 2012 Games and the need to build 50,000 homes a year in the capital require us to bring together the very best of engineering skills from across all disciplines, as early on in the project as we can. At Atkins alone we invested more than a thousand years of our engineering and design experts’ time in delivering the Games. Imagine if we put all of that expertise and effort into solving London’s housing crisis.

UK & Europe,

During my career, I’ve learned the value of the art in engineering and the importance of human interaction. To put it as simply as I can, I’ve found that people don’t tend to buy an engineering company, they tend to buy people.

I often wonder how we can make sure that the importance of human relationships is pervasive in engineering given the rise of digital engineering and technology. There are some obvious benefits to a fully digital environment, and I think we have a lot to learn from the new generation of engineers and their experience of technology. However, there is a danger of things becoming so robotic and scientific that we lose the human perspective.

I want us to see digital engineering not just as technology, but as a tool to unlock greater levels of creativity, greater time for human interaction and greater time for collaboration. After all, it’s our relationships and our human perspective of the end-user in our work that lead to truly great engineering.

At the moment, virtually every engineering project is a voyage of discovery; it’s not a system. However, the world is moving towards taking a manufacturing approach to construction. This would mean no project is truly a one off – instead it would be built from a kit of parts, similar to car manufacturing. The role of design therefore might change, as less time will be spent designing from scratch.

This ‘kit of parts’ approach would give us more for less in terms of time and effort, and it would reduce waste. Designs could also be built in places where there’s a need for jobs or where it’s low cost to build.

Another advantage of technology is being able to appeal to a broader section of our society. How can we better communicate our projects and designs to the world? How could we remove the disciplinary barriers between electrical, mechanical, science, architecture and create more opportunities? And how can we increase our talent pool by creating opportunities for people who didn’t train as engineers but want to be involved in engineering or work on a major project? Because there are a lot of very clever people out there that aren’t qualified as engineers but have great ideas we can use to improve our infrastructure.

We don’t have all the answers yet but what I do know, is that we’re making great strides. Projects like Lime Tree Academy, a ‘forest school’ where students now receive a good part of their curriculum outdoors, along with our recent work on Gatwick Airport’s north terminal, which will speed up check-in times and give passengers a better experience as they begin their journeys, and of course Birmingham New Street station, are beacons for what’s possible.


I would like to think that in the future, technology will ultimately give us more freedom. So let’s make sure we use technology to make us more creative. If it takes us eight hours to do something but with technology we can do it in four, could we make those four hours a time for innovation? Or a time for creativity? Or a time to develop?

Let’s use technology to create space, rather than just cram more into the working day. The advantages are there for the taking – so long as the people we’re delivering for remain at the forefront of our minds.

UK & Europe,

Can you believe it’s been three years since the London Olympics? Three years since we cheered Mo Farah across the finish line in the 10,000m, held our breath as Tom Daley dove from the 10m platform, and watched as Chris Hoy inspired millions of Britains to take to their bikes.

Sometimes it seems like all of this happened only yesterday. Atkins, and my, involvement in the Olympics has been a long and demanding (but hugely rewarding) journey, one that continues today through our work with the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC).

I read an article in the Guardian recently which questioned if the Olympics are really delivering on their promises to East London. It’s a great read, but I feel they missed off one important element of the Olympic legacy – the role the Games had, and have, in inspiring the next generation.

When Atkins first started work on the Olympic Park, we realised that one of the most important parts of our role was making a real difference to the community we were working in. This is why we partnered with Citizens UK to bring in 20 interns to Atkins from East London. Eight of these young people are now working alongside me with full time jobs at Atkins.

Former Atkins interns visit the Olympic Park
Former Atkins interns visit the Olympic Park where Pathways to Engineering first started.

The internships we started during the Games are now being rolled out as a bigger programme we’ve called Pathways to Engineering. It was launched on 13 July by Mayor Boris Johnson at the Orbital, one of the Olympic Park’s repurposed buildings, as part of Citizen UK’s Good Jobs campaign.

We’re now looking to other engineering companies to join Pathways to Engineering and help us achieve our goal of giving hundreds of young people in East London engineering training and work experience, and the chance to get an apprenticeship with the UK’s top engineering companies. Together we can make a real difference and ensure that the Olympic legacy lives on through the next generation.

If you’re interested in getting involved in Pathways to Engineering email

UK & Europe,

Half the world’s population, 3.5 billion people, currently live in cities and this is estimated to reach 60 per cent by 2030 and 75 per cent by 2050. How we develop social infrastructure to meet the demands of these population shifts and the evolving way we live and work is critically important.

At a recent roundtable debate with The Guardian, we considered some of the challenges associated with developing social infrastructure for UK cities and communities, and one of the main challenges posed was how do we guarantee future investment in infrastructure not only generates economic benefits but also improves quality of life for the end user?

Historically, the emphasis on cities has been about economic and financial gain, however with our rapidly expanding population, social gain is no longer a ‘desired add-on’ and has become just as important – although I think we still have to ask whether we are putting enough thought into health, livelihood, the environment and so on.

David Leam of London First rightly said during the debate that, “if we want London to remain a successful leading world community that brings big benefits to the whole country then quality of life really matters”. Although there are examples of good practice in Britain’s new builds where quality of life requirements are being considered, it still hasn’t become the norm.

Sally Prentice, a London Borough of Lambeth planning committee member, specifically mentioned the development at Battersea Power Station during the debate; she fears that not enough is being done to provide social infrastructure there.

She stated that “only a ‘tiny amount’ of affordable housing has been included in the plans, and the rest will likely be buy to let, second homes and property owned abroad, lots of very luxurious accommodation plus another big shopping centre” and questioned whether this is really what London needs.

As the project director for Atkins’ work on the London 2012 Olympic Park, I think the legacy programme it left behind could be used as a best practice example of what should be considered when developing future infrastructure in UK cities.

Social value was added in a number of ways including providing affordable housing, developing facilities for various sporting and cultural events, landscaping open spaces both adults and children can enjoy and developing resources so local schools can use the outdoor park space for teaching.

Not only has this improved the quality of life for people who live and work in the area, it has ensured that Stratford still remains a place that tourists want to visit even after the Olympics, which in turn has had a positive impact on business in the area.

Hopefully there will continue to be more best practice examples in cities and communities around the UK where the end user and their quality of life is the main requirement when developing infrastructure, rather than focusing solely on economic gain.

UK & Europe,