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Nick Roberts

Nick Roberts

Chief executive officer

UK & Europe

Nick is chief executive officer of Atkins’ business in the UK and Europe, responsible for all aspects of operations spanning multiple infrastructure, building and industrial markets. A member of the company’s Group leadership team, he focuses on strategy, organisational agility and rapid innovation, driving change across the organisation particularly around the fusion of the digital and physical environment.

Prior to his current role, Nick was Atkins North America’s strategy director and MD of the infrastructure business, responsible for leading the integration and transformation of a major acquisition. With over 20 years’ experience in consulting, he has held several managing director positions at Atkins across a variety of sectors and previously at consulting firms in Canada.

Nick is a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion, and leads the Atkins Military Covenant programme which has received the Gold Award from the Ministry of Defence. He also sponsors Atkins’ Women’s Professional Network in the UK and champions the company’s STEM initiatives, which aim to nurture and inspire the next generation of infrastructure and engineering specialists. He is proud of Atkins’ success in the Sunday Times Best Big Companies to Work For awards.

A chartered geologist by profession, Nick holds a Masters from the University of Wales and a BSc in Geology from the University of Reading. He currently serves on the Commission for the Vibrant Economy sponsored by Grant Thornton, The Institution of Civil Engineers Brexit Leadership Group and the Industrial Digitalisation Strategy Leadership Group. He also mentors leaders of third sector organisations.

Find out more about where I work and any related career opportunities.

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Within the strategy we have been set an ‘open door challenge’ to go to the government with proposals to ‘transform and upgrade our sector’. The ball is therefore in our court. If we don’t do anything, government isn’t going to come knocking on our door with solutions on a plate and millions of pounds of funding to throw at the challenge.

British engineering is in the midst of a renaissance which I believe aligns perfectly with the ‘cultivating world-leading sectors’ pillar of the industrial strategy.  The evidence of our past successes in this regard is plain to see all around the world, from railways to buildings, and if we can do it once we can do it again. Whether we like it or not, change – in the form of technology – is happening in our sector. We must adapt to the opportunities this offers quicker than everyone else in order to capitalise and put British expertise in high demand around the world.

To a large degree we’ve already mastered physical infrastructure. But we’re still at a relatively early stage of the area where physical meets digital, and for me, this is where we can cultivate a world-leading sector. We know that technology will continue to enable us to achieve things that haven’t been possible previously or deliver more for less. We know that there will be increasing amounts of data and sensor technology that will allow assets to be managed better over their whole lifetime. And we know that technology increasingly puts the end user at the heart of infrastructure decisions. It’s not as though we aren’t already making progress, but if we want to be that world-leading sector we have to accelerate our progress. That is the challenge we need to solve.

Technology will continue to develop at a rapid, driven by the tech companies. Our focus must remain on our strength which is the application of the technology to the infrastructure environment. It will be disruptive to the norm – for governments, infrastructure owners and suppliers.  If we want to speed up our progress it means being bolder with the risks of trying new solutions, it means taking a new approach to coordinating a supply chain which is focused around innovation, it means looking for the gaps in traditional approaches to infrastructure planning. We need to be open to modifying and adopting developments in other sectors, like nano-manufacturing and advanced materials.

The journey towards digital and intelligent infrastructure is something we’d already started. The industrial strategy has provided us with a framework to gain government support and acts as a call to arms for us to be quicker and more agile in our pursuit to ensure the UK is bold, relevant, innovative and competitive in our new, post-Brexit world order. 

UK & Europe,

It’s estimated that an average adult will make somewhere in the region of 35,000 conscious decisions every day. Granted, many of these will be fairly trivial, but a significant number of them will require us to make a choice of whether to compete or collaborate.

Generally speaking competing means pursuing self-interest before all else. The gains can be more significant, but the losses too. Competition runs to the core of what businesses and business leaders, and even individuals, are expected to do. On the other hand, collaborating means that you have to share your competitive advantage and work harder to make sure the relationships with your partners run smoothly. Risk and reward for the individual companies is normally smaller but in the long term you will probably achieve a greater good. As we face increasingly complex challenges and an evolving business landscape the lines between competing and collaborating have to move closer together so we can have the best of both worlds.

The people of the UK have recently been asked one of the most important questions in recent history. Do we want to forge our own way or do we want to be part of something bigger. We chose to go it alone. In other words we want to compete and to do better. It’s therefore slightly ironic that in order to do this successfully we will need to collaborate more than ever.

Focusing firstly on Brexit, it is a mind-blowingly complex task to unpick countless EU rules, regulations, standards, processes, laws and deals that span everything in our daily lives for more than 40 years. Purely from a design, engineering, science and infrastructure perspective, we know that leaving the EU could disrupt or pose serious threats to skills, research, investment and procurement, as well as the standards by which we operate and do business.

As much as we all as individuals and representatives of our businesses will have views on Brexit it’s vital that our sector has a clear voice. We need to agree amongst ourselves what the priorities are – both in terms of opportunities to flourish and the biggest risks. We have to come up with both the questions and the answers so that the government can have the best chance of securing the best deal for the nation. Will we all get everything we want, probably not, but on the whole I’d like to think that we can achieve enough to give us a stable footing from which to operate and grow.

I could put forward a similar case around the UK’s future infrastructure needs. The scale of some of the challenges means that there’s no longer a clear line of differentiation between competitors and partners. Of course we need to let market forces continue to challenge and drive the likes of innovation and efficiency, but it will be the might of our collective efforts that will help make the decisions which are in the best interests of the country, and more importantly its people. Again many of the people who will be making the key decisions around infrastructure are not the domain experts. So it’s important that we, as an industry, make a clear, informed case to enable the best possible outcome. This means working together on the big picture, but retaining the flexibility to realise the positive benefits of competition when it comes to the detail.

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) has established a Brexit leadership group to look at the fundamental issues facing the sector and provide evidence based briefings to negotiators on behalf of the industry. The Group will be reaching out to the industry for views. ICE’s president Sir John Armitt is also leading a group of environmental, industry, business and academic organisations to produce a national needs assessment. It will provide an independent, evidence-based take on our infrastructure needs to 2050 and will be published and shared with the National Infrastructure Commission in October.

Atkins is proud to be contributing to both collaborations. Collective knowledge and expertise is powerful - and even more powerful when shared.

Although not everybody voted for the path we find ourselves on we have an opportunity to unite, innovate and find new ways of doing business, as well as solving the many challenges ahead.

This article originally appeared in Infrastructure Intelligence.

UK & Europe,

Competition is healthy. It keeps us sharp, agile and at the top of our game. But not everything in life is competitive and it is possible to have winners without having to have a loser. London versus the Northern Powerhouse increasingly seems to be debated, and more specifically over the last week this has extended to Crossrail 2 versus High Speed 3 with concerns raised that London gets a new railway whereas the North ‘only’ gets an upgrade to existing infrastructure.

For me, it’s never been a choice between London or the Northern Powerhouse. It has to be both. It has to be about the growth of the UK. I’m not pretending that choices are easy but it’s an example of why the government created the National Infrastructure Commission, so they could take a long term, balanced and objective view of the country’s infrastructure needs in order to help make some of these decisions.

I was pleased to see that in its first outputs the Commission proposed major schemes in both the North and London, and the Chancellor subsequently announced in the Budget that money will be made available to take forward key recommendations in both. Would I have liked the Budget to include more pump priming for the Northern Powerhouse, on a scale which would give it a real kick start rather than simply bringing forward investments that were planned already? Yes, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the North has got a raw deal.

Let’s not forget that the government is proposing to provide less than half the cost of Crossrail 2 with the remainder being made up from fares, Business Rate Supplements and an infrastructure levy. This is a model that has been used successfully in London on Crossrail 1. London has the demand, it has the high density population, it is established as a world city and can attract significant investment and it has had many years operating under a single governance structure.

These options aren’t open to the Northern Powerhouse. It’s in its infancy and it is much more difficult to attract these alternative funding sources for major infrastructure. However, when the amount of money to spend is restricted – as was clear in the Budget - we will have to make the most of the incremental approach. But this has to deliver benefits more quickly to be of real value. It is a case that money needs to be spent to draw in the additional investment we require, and this is the government’s gift to give.

Linked to this we should also consider the practicalities of delivering these sorts of major infrastructure schemes. Transport for the North (TfN) is a relatively new entity and to a large extent is still establishing itself. Significant progress has been made on the creation of a northern transport strategy and to provide TfN with the statutory powers it needs. But they will continue to need help from central and local government in order to deliver their ambitious plans.

Transport for London has taken many years to build up its experience and expertise, plus it has the added benefit of clear governance, reporting to a single point – the Mayor of London. Cities in the North don’t even elect their mayors for at least another year and there will certainly be more work to do after the elections to establish pan-regional way of working.

I live in the north and I believe in the region’s ability to be better than it is today. Comparisons with London would be a distraction and the focus needs to be on what outcomes we can achieve with the investments that are coming to the North rather than worrying about whether the money funds something new or an upgrade of existing infrastructure. Let’s be realistic, things don’t change overnight, but the direction of travel is right and with continued focus and determination, and by working together to continue making the North an attractive environment in which to live, work and invest, everyone can be a winner.

UK & Europe,

The National Infrastructure Commission was set up to take a long term and objective view of our infrastructure needs. The Chancellor’s agreement to take forward key recommendations such as HS3, the Trans-Pennine tunnel, the expansion of capacity on the M62 and Crossrail 2 shows that the system works. The creation of new and improved infrastructure is the means to the end, not the end itself, so the focus needs to be on delivering these schemes quickly in order to start generating the economic benefits we need now. Particularly in the case of the Northern Powerhouse, government spending on new and improved infrastructure will be vital in attracting much needed funding from other sources and delivering the productivity improvements that the government has set out.

The influence of technology and data is enabling us to be smarter and more efficient in the way we use and deliver infrastructure. I welcome the funding and commitment to our digital economy and to make trials of driverless cars a reality on our roads by 2017, but would have liked to have seen more. I believe we have a real opportunity for the UK to lead the worldwide digital infrastructure revolution but we have to invest more in ensuring our infrastructure can keep up with the pace that technology is developing and evolving.

UK & Europe,

We’ve seen the Chancellor visit GCHQ and announce additional funding of £1.9 billion to deliver a series of initiatives to protect the economy and infrastructure, along with Ed Vaizey, Minister for the Digital Economy proposing a cyber health check for FTSE 350 firms.

As a CEO, I of course welcome this as a positive intervention and one that should drive us forward as an industry to take a closer look at our own security. But as the designers, builders and operators of infrastructure that millions of people rely on every day, it’s also a chance to ask if we can honestly say we’re doing all we can to protect ourselves, our clients and the public.

In recent years we’ve all witnessed greater convergence of IT, enterprise technology and operational technology within our organisations. The pace of change has been really quite dramatic and shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. It’s this connection between hardware and software that is making cyber attacks easier and more dangerous, penetrating to the core of our operations. What’s more worrying from an industry perspective is the potential impact of an attack on some of our Critical National Infrastructure, such as utilities, power networks and public transport. We design infrastructure to last decades, but hi-tech threats are constantly evolving. So how can we ensure we keep up with the security challenges facing our infrastructure and know we have done everything possible to protect our public services?

For me there are two steps we can take as an industry to truly embed a holistic approach to security. Firstly, we need to elevate the importance of cyber security to board level, just as safety is considered a top priority amongst senior leadership teams. In many cases this will mean investment, but like safety, this is a necessity rather than a luxury.

The second change we can make is around education, training and skills. In many cases cyber-attacks do not come through a failure in the technology we’ve put in place. Instead attackers frequently exploit the ignorance of a company’s employees to gain unfettered access to key systems. It’s for this reason that I believe we need to invest in training our people to understand and report security issues quickly.

In summary, we need to focus on the positives, learn from our mistakes and follow the Government’s timely investment and guidance to put security high up on the agenda where it increasingly belongs.

UK & Europe,

“Increased productivity and a more competitive, balanced and resilient economy cannot happen without investing in the nation’s infrastructure, from the roads and railways to move people around, to the energy to power homes and businesses, and the housing to provide a roof over people’s heads.

“The Chancellor has set out a vision for infrastructure over the years ahead but the hard work begins now. We forget at our peril that the Government departments that drive much of this activity are facing operational budget cuts of up to 40% and many of the local authorities in our major towns and cities will be getting to grips with their new responsibilities under the devolution agreements. It’s vital we do not allow these to slow down the progress of the schemes which have been outlined by George Osborne. The British people will not benefit from words on a page, we need to get building.

“Where funding remains tight, it’s critically important we don’t lose sight of what we need to do to ensure the UK is an attractive country for foreign investment, from cutting business red tape to painting a clearer picture of investment opportunities in our cities and infrastructure.

“In a spending review full of tough choices it was encouraging that the Chancellor’s investments in the Northern Powerhouse have come in addition to rather than at the expense of London. The billions set aside for transport and housing in London will help sustain its vibrant economy whereas the priority in the Northern Powerhouse must be establishing the relevant bodies deliver a wide-ranging infrastructure programme quickly and effectively.”

UK & Europe,

The relationship between technology and infrastructure is fascinating. Tech has already changed and enriched the way we live and work. We’ve shown ourselves to be very adept at evolving our use of it at a personal level, but less so when it comes to the scale and complexity of urban infrastructure. And it’s the latter we need to crack if we want to deliver more for less, to do things which aren’t currently possible and to transform how people use and interact with infrastructure.

But despite the excitement of being at the beginning of a new era of technology-enabled infrastructure, there’s a lot of inconsistency across our industry about what we actually mean.

Infrastructure is generally designed to last anywhere up to 100 years, whereas the pace of change in the tech world is much more rapid. Tech companies have built their business model around persistent evolution of their products, but we build to last.

Take the iPhone as an example, Apple has launched no less than nine models since the first in 2007. Although the original iPhone isn’t quite obsolete, with the complexity of modern apps and the ongoing evolution of hardware I doubt it will be usable for much beyond the most basic functions.

In this context who wants to spend millions of pounds on infrastructure which is reliant on tech which could be outdated before it has got a quarter of the way through its design life?

Perhaps one of our challenges is to figure out how we get the convergence right so we can incorporate technology that can be upgraded without having to completely redesign or replace the infrastructure around it. We’ve seen how smart phones and medical devices have converged to monitor bodily functions and open source data from infrastructure owners is increasingly providing travel data to help passengers manage their journeys, but I hope we can take it up to the level that there’s so much excitement about in our sector.

As we consider these challenges and seek to push the boundaries, risk comes into the equation and we’re conflicted between wanting something new and something that is proven and reliable. Taking ideas from one sector and applying them to another is one way to innovate whilst providing confidence that the core technology works.

As consultants, we often say to our clients that if you want to get the best from the supply chain that you need to bring us in at the outset so we can fully understand the challenge and work together to develop an effective solution.

Maybe we need to reciprocate the thinking. Rather than just knocking on the door of infrastructure owners with a tech-based solution, we perhaps need to bring them in at an earlier stage of development. So why not create alliances of tech companies (the experts in their products), consultants and contractors (experts in infrastructure and the application of technology in this market) and clients (who fund infrastructure and have responsibility for improving and operating it)?

We could also broaden this concept further to crowdsourcing ideas from end users. If we take a minimum viable product approach – which means creating and testing skeleton versions of new concepts to avoid introducing products that people don’t want whilst collecting valuable data for future development – we can reach creative solutions in a rapid and open manner. Having this joined up approach should help reduce risks as the solution is in development and provide confidence that it is the right way forward for the long term needs of the infrastructure users.

Technology-enabled infrastructure can’t and shouldn’t be something that always remains in the future. Over 25% of London’s job growth will come from technology so it needs to be part of our industry today. So let’s be innovative in the way we approach the introduction of tech as well as the solutions themselves, and take a proactive approach so we don’t simply go at a pace where we don’t even notice we’ve adopted it.

UK & Europe,

As someone with a professional background in earth and environmental sciences, climate change is a topic close to my heart. Debate is clearly part of a healthy society, but that doesn’t remove my frustration that there is still too much debate on whether it’s really a problem rather than what we’re going to do to tackle it.

That’s why I was particularly pleased to see Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England active in the debate this week (click here for full speech). He aligns climate change to financial stability, which is a language we all understand. I wonder how many of the millions of people that have bought diesel VW cars are outraged because they have been polluting the environment more than they thought versus how many are thinking about it in terms of poorer fuel efficiency and the prospects of having to pay some form of higher taxes – things which will hit them in the pocket? Of course many people will also just feel misled. We’re also about to see the introduction of a 5p charge introduced in England for single use carrier bags. With an estimated 500 billion to one trillion of these bags consumed and discarded around the world annually, we shouldn’t really need financial incentives to reduce usage.

One of Mr Carney’s points which I found particularly interesting was about companies disclosing carbon emissions. Atkins has been involved with the Carbon Disclosure Project – which covers 5,000 companies and investment managers responsible for over $90 trillion of assets – since 2010, both in terms of disclosing our own company data and helping other companies to do likewise. Disclosing carbon emissions in a public and transparent way means it’s measured. If it’s measured it normally gets discussed around the boardroom table, which is where it should sit alongside traditional business priorities. Mr Carney makes a very valid point about having a consistent approach rather than fragmented. Not only would this help investors, customers and employees make more informed decisions about companies it should stimulate competition and a commercial drive for companies to reduce emissions.

I think Mark Carney’s description that we are “lost in the right direction” is apt and preferable to being clear in the wrong direction, but given that so many companies are already signed up to disclosure, the transition to a common approach should be entirely achievable.​

UK & Europe,

There’s no doubt that we’re currently in the midst of an infrastructure renaissance and a challenging delivery schedule. Perhaps it’s not on the scale of the Victorians, but we have billions of pounds worth of projects highlighted in the National Infrastructure Plan and infrastructure is a hot topic in political circles. New or upgraded roads, railways, airports, housing, energy generation plants and digital networks are heralded as the answer to many of the biggest challenges facing the UK, ranging from productivity and rebalancing the economy to increasing social mobility and tackling climate change. But it somehow still feels a bit fragile.

We have to welcome the steps that have been taken in recent years to provide improved transparency of the pipeline of major projects and the confidence that this provides. But it’s important that future planning and investment isn’t undermined by the political pendulum swinging back and forth and that we can focus on delivering the benefits that will enrich people’s lives.

For me, a lack of money within the UK government at both a national and local level is a big issue. It means tough choices will have to be made around spending. I often wonder whether it would be more straight forward if infrastructure was funded with someone else’s money. With public sector funding there is always a debate about whether it should go into one thing or another, so it could be a choice between infrastructure or, for example, the NHS or education. If the funding was from a third party, it’s likely the discussion would be more along the lines of ‘I’ve got some money to build a railway, are you interested? If not I’ll find someone else’s railway.’ The private sector paid for swathes of Victorian infrastructure so should we be learning a lesson from them?

A political landscape which involves clearing the country’s debts and living within our means is likely for the foreseeable future and could provide an opportunity. Not only could third-party investment take some of the heat out of infrastructure decision making, it could help plug the two per cent shortfall between the amount of GDP the UK spends on infrastructure and the amount that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says is needed to maintain competitiveness and quality of life.

The world is not short of money to invest and there are numerous sovereign wealth funds which are seeking opportunities. But our rules and regulations don’t make it particularly easy and in many cases investors have to win a bidding process in order to spend their money on our projects. I know we need to make sure the deal is favourable for everyone, but barriers like this probably also turn a number of people off.

Third party funding isn’t a new idea but I think it’s fair to say we haven’t been as successful in achieving this as we would have liked. In this regard I was pleased to see that a delegation from the Northern Powerhouse recently attended the Prime Minister’s trade mission to South East Asia. In addition to promoting the products, services and capabilities of businesses in the North they were able to present a case for inward investment into the region.

With the Northern Powerhouse, certainty around investment in infrastructure will be vital for transforming potential into the reality of connectivity, jobs, skills and social mobility. This is even more important outside of London, which already has international profile and a strong framework governing its future development. Securing additional funding on top of what the government has already committed could be the difference between success and failure. It will require vision and clarity of the investment opportunities. We have a comparatively stable economy and political system, as well as the experience and skills to deliver high quality infrastructure safely and efficiently. Let’s not allow a lack of imagination around potential funding models hold us back.

This post was originally published in Infrastructure Intelligence and is reproduced here with kind permission.

UK & Europe,

For anybody expecting billions of pounds of new infrastructure spending to be announced in the Chancellor’s Summer Budget they will have been disappointed as it was barely mentioned. But in a budget which was focused more on how to balance the books we perhaps shouldn’t be too disappointed.

However, there were two particular government policies which should make us all sit up and take note. The aspiration to replace student maintenance grants in favour of loans and the introduction of an apprenticeship levy for large businesses could be as industry defining for our future as the transport and energy mega projects in the National Infrastructure Plan.

We all need a steady flow of young people to join our industry in order to deliver the projects which are going to enrich lives and prosperity in the coming decades. There are plenty of predictions that this flow will fall short of the numbers we need to sustain our industry and if the cost of getting a degree amplifies this shortage further then we will need to rethink how we are going to secure the next generation of designers and engineers.

I think we have to be particularly mindful of the impact that replacing grants with loans could have on attracting talented young people from a wide variety of backgrounds who perhaps don’t have the same opportunities to go through the higher education route. This is something which we are acutely aware of at Atkins which is why we’ve just launched the ‘Pathways To Engineering’ scheme in partnership with Citizens UK to provide engineering work experience, training and support for young people, parents and teachers from schools in East London. During the pilot programme we hosted 20 interns, eight of who are now working for us full time. It would have been a travesty if these stars of the future like these hadn’t had an opportunity to shine.

We saw from the election campaign that all the main political parties championed apprenticeships and the decision to apply a levy to large companies is a signal of the government’s determination to meet its manifesto promises. I understand that all businesses have a responsibility to training and development and opening up career opportunities for young people, but I worry for those who end up at companies that are driven to take on apprentices by financial penalties as there is a world of difference in organisational attitude and design in wanting to and having to take on apprentices. Hopefully medium and small companies will feel they can play their part in training the next generation, but not to their cost, to their benefit.

The spirit of an apprenticeship is to learn a skill or craft from a master in their field. Potentially apprentices benefit more from access to these experts and the latest developments in our industry than graduates who learn from academics. As the prominence of apprenticeships grows in our industry we need to do more to make sure that career opportunities for apprentices are equal to those of graduates. For me this means taking a more flexible approach to chartership and addressing the misconceptions that an apprenticeship is somehow a lesser career option. If we can achieve this we will not only make our industry more open to a wider variety of people, we can truly create a better future for us all.

This article original appeared in Infrastructure Intelligence and is reproduced here with permission.

UK & Europe,

In a budget designed primarily to deal with the deficit it would have been easy for infrastructure to take a hit. It’s great news that infrastructure remains central to the government’s plans for economic growth, and the creation of the new road fund and the £30m for Transport for the North are positive steps forward which will help people go about their daily lives.

We have thousands of talented engineers eager to take these projects forward, and we remind the government of the importance of backing up the words with action, as infrastructure can only make a tangible difference if we get spades in the ground quickly and efficiently.

UK & Europe,

Solving the deliverability challenge requires a focus on outcomes rather than outputs. Outcome driven engagement between clients and the supply chain throughout the project, but particularly right at the start is critical to success.

Deliverability is a term that is often used to describe one of the most important challenges we face in our industry. But interestingly despite the fact that Google provides you with 561,000 results when you search for the word, none of them actually define what it means.

I’m not going to attempt to create a dictionary definition but I do want to explore some of the common factors we associate with the word and why these are important.

As human beings, we get used to “the way things are” really quickly. But for designers and engineers, the way things are is an opportunity, we should always asking: Could things be better?

It would be too simple to think that deliverability simply means saying what you’re going to do and then doing it, although that’s always good place to start.

There are a number of factors affecting the deliverability of a project: The skills, scale and mobility of resources; limited budgets; time constraints; competing priorities of clients and the supply chain; or the fact that the technology or solution doesn’t currently exist. The answers for dealing with these are all different and we often have to face several of them on each project.

In addition to the ability to deliver from a technical perspective, making sure we don’t lose sight of why we’re delivering these projects in the first place is key. We’re not simply about creating infrastructure for the sake of it, it has to have a purpose, whether improving journeys or providing reliable utility supplies. Putting the outcome at the centre of the challenge rather than the output allows us to solve the deliverability challenge in a completely different way.

I’m not convinced we do this often enough. Regardless of whether you’re looking at outcome or output, good planning underpins every successful project. I do wonder whether we have the proportions right between time and resources spent on planning and design and time spent on delivery.

I’m a huge fan of Sir Brad and what Team Sky have done over the past few years; marginal gains and incremental improvements, relentless attention to detail and challenging how they could do everything better.

I’m keen to have more outcome driven engagement between clients and the supply chain throughout the project, but particularly right at the start. I believe we should be relentlessly dissatisfied with the status quo.

What do I mean by this? It’s not about saying that we can’t be proud of a job well done. However it is saying that we can’t just do things the way we always have done, there has to be some improvements we can make next time. How often do all parties carry out a thorough review of what went well and what lessons can be learnt before we all move on to the next project?

I’m sure that like me, many of you recently watched Sir Bradley Wiggins break the UCI Hour Record at Lee Valley Velopark. I’m a huge fan of Sir Brad and what Team Sky have done over the past few years; marginal gains and incremental improvements, relentless attention to detail and challenging how they could do everything better.

As human beings, we get used to “the way things are” really quickly. But for designers and engineers, the way things are is an opportunity, we should always asking: Could things be better?

Can we deliver our next project better? Let’s not accept that the way things are, let’s challenge it and improve our deliverability. At Atkins that’s certainly our goal, and a relentless dissatisfaction with the status quo is something we should encourage.


This opinion piece was first published on Infrastructure Intelligence and is reproduced here, with permission.

UK & Europe,

A week ago many of us in the UK were pondering the implications that a change of government would have for our industry. We were keeping our fingers crossed that decision making would not grind to a halt and that infrastructure would not be used as a political pawn during coalition negotiations.

If the Pulse survey published in Infrastructure Intelligence on 6 May reflects the views of our industry, we’ve got what we wanted. Respondents said a Conservative government would be best for infrastructure, and that means we have their manifesto and the National Infrastructure Plan to provide some certainty for the future. Furthermore, there are now no coalition partners to accommodate which in theory makes the running of the country a more straight forward task.

However this is where the notion of an easy ride ends. The government’s majority is slim and they will be well aware of the difficulties that rebels within their own party could cause. Then we have the unfamiliar opposition. Although they have fewer than 50 per cent of votes in the House of Commons, they still represent a large proportion of the country, particularly in Scotland, and will have a loud voice.

We have issues such as Europe, devolution and the ongoing budget deficit on the table which could make the UK unrecognisable in five years’ time and absorb a lot of people’s time and energy from other matters. From an infrastructure perspective there are huge decisions to make around airport capacity, high speed rail, energy and the digital economy which will affect the country for generations to come, and it will need strong leadership and political will to see these through.

There are many individuals and organisations championing their causes and stating their priorities for the government. Of course there is merit in this, but I wanted to highlight some of the things I believe we need to focus on ourselves.

Politicians broadly appreciate the value of infrastructure, however, it still feels as though members of the public often perceive it as a burden rather than something that enriches their lives. I believe part of the reason for this is the business case. It is heavily weighted towards the financial return on investment, which is of course important, but it is the social benefits that will win the hearts and minds of the public. We need to think broadly and holistically about infrastructure, which will ultimately gain more support and enable better decisions to be made.

It may sound obvious, but having sold the benefits of what we do, we need to deliver on our promises. Confidence that we can deliver should not be underestimated, and if projects go over time or over budget, or if the quality of what is delivered isn’t up to scratch it provides an easy reason to divert funding elsewhere. If we get it right, not only can it help bring in more and different models of investment, it will help money go further and enable the UK population to benefit from investments in new and existing infrastructure.

The UK has a history of moving the world forward through infrastructure and engineering. Maintaining this position is both good for business and good for Britain. It means delivering projects well at home, upskilling our people and exporting our expertise overseas. We also have the chance to shape the future of our industry as we move more and more into the digital era.

To end on another saying – actions speak louder than words – delivering on these three points should make sure we’re heard.

This piece was originally published on Infrastructure Intelligence (13 May 2015).

UK & Europe,

On the face of it, the relationships between businesses and universities are straight forward. Companies need young, talented people to boost their workforce and it is the role of universities to provide their students with the qualifications required.

In reality, the relationships run much deeper than a transactional recruitment drive. Firstly, the universities play a valuable role in providing the technical knowledge and many of the behaviours to do the job. However, there has to be collaboration with businesses to ensure that the skills and behaviours being taught are the ones that are needed in the workplace, especially in one that continuously evolves. Secondly, universities offer a unique research capability that not only provides valuable content for companies such as Atkins and our clients, but also provides students the opportunity to understand and address some real challenges.

As a design and engineering company, it is particularly important that these relationships work effectively. It’s widely acknowledged that the UK is not producing enough engineers and that too many graduates who have the qualifications are choosing to pursue other career paths. We recently published a report – The skills deficit: consequences and opportunities for UK infrastructure – to understand the consequences this shortage could have on the UK’s ability to deliver the infrastructure it needs to prosper. If people want a purpose in their careers, what could be better than providing the infrastructure which makes society tick and improves people’s lives?

We also looked at the opportunities to improve the current system and it is here we identified numerous accounts from business leaders, institutions and academics calling for greater collaboration and dialogue between business and universities.

It also got me thinking – are we doing enough to look at how the engineering industry can use some of the skills – such as information technology, coding or even some of those used in the film industry – which are more available to get over the shortage of traditional skills and deliver projects in a different way? Is there more we could do to help the transition of young people from university to workplace? This could be in the form of more senior engineers delivering modules for engineering students. Or more emphasis and opportunities for summer placements within industry, giving more young people access to the cold face of project work and delivery, helping shape their minds or their final years at university. No doubt there are a number of other solutions.

When it comes to research, universities are developing some of the country’s finest young minds but is the business community making the most of this resource? As an example, Atkins has signed an agreement with Heriot-Watt University to create a Centre of Excellence for High Speed Rail which aims to push the boundaries of railway track research beyond high speed into the realm of ultra high speed. Not only is this fascinating work, with 15,000 miles of high speed rail due to be created around the world in the coming years, it supports a real business opportunity.

I think that overall the goals of businesses and universities remain aligned but there are further benefits for us all of taking this to the next level and helping create a better future society.

UK & Europe,

In the final budget before the general election the Chancellor ensured infrastructure investment and the ongoing growth of the UK economy continued hand-in-hand.

We don’t have to look very far to our international neighbours to see that the UK can’t compete effectively on the world stage if London and the South East continue to dominate our economic output. We have to make better use of our other cities and regions which is why plans for a Northern Powerhouse is so vital. Infrastructure is the key to unlocking this potential – the jobs, the skills, the growth and the private investment – but it is not the only thing. The cities will need to think much more as a collective rather than individuals. They will need to plan the development that goes around the transport – the housing, the businesses, the recreation – to makes sure the investment is maximised. It will not be an easy job, but with the political will, investment and technical skills and knowledge to make it happen we have a great opportunity ahead.

Energy is fundamental to our daily lives and the government’s decision to enter formal discussions on tidal lagoons could be a game changer for the UK. Wave power is a natural resource we have in abundance and unlike the sun and wind, the tide is predictable and consistent. Therefore, not only can tidal lagoons provide us with a green, reliable energy supply, they can create jobs and act as catalysts for regeneration. Importantly, they also offer us an opportunity to showcase and export British innovation and engineering at its best and this makes it even more important to get it right.

As well as traditional infrastructure, digital technology undoubtedly represents the direction of travel. Not only do we have the technical challenges of developing and integrating the new technology, but we have to persuade people of the case for changing the way they have done things for many years. The additional funding announced for R&D on driverless cars and the internet of things is a good starting point, but it is important we also invest in people to ensure they can maximise the benefits of the information revolution.

UK & Europe,

George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK announced his Autumn Statement today. There are two particular areas I’d like to comment on – transport and flood defences.

Transport is the backbone of our economy and society. It’s vital our towns and cities are well connected, and the ongoing investment in building and enhancing the railways needs to continue. However, roads have an equally important role to play, and although a number of improvement programmes have been delivered in recent years the investment has not been on the same scale. The certainty this much-needed investment provides, combined with the imminent changes to how the Highways Agency operates, should allow a longer term, more strategic approach to how improvements are planned and delivered. For example, the starting point for key road schemes announced in the Autumn Statement is to improve connections to the south west and Norwich. With this outcome in mind, the individual road improvements which offer the greatest benefit and best value for money can be chosen.

And with regards flood defences, the forward investment in this much needed area (of flood defence and flood risk management) is welcome and we trust that any incoming Government will maintain this commitment. In addition to the damage to housing and infrastructure and the disruption to lives, the impact on local and national economic life can be significant. Flooding can affect people getting to work and the movement of goods around the country for businesses. It can reduce or ruin soil fertility for farmland. It is important that some of these indirect consequences are taken into account when assessing the impact of flooding, particularly in the context of a cost benefit investment model.

An at-a-glance summary of the Autumn Statement is available on the BBC website, here.

UK & Europe,