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In December 2015 Atkins was commissioned to design, tender and oversee landscape improvements around Ivybridge Primary School in Isleworth, London.

The school's existing external environment consisted of large open areas of tarmac with inaccessible boundaries and overgrown vegetation. Our brief was to design multi-functional landscape features that support learning across the curriculum whilst also providing improved playtime resources for Reception, Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2.

The project has been a great success and so I wanted to share my five step process for achieving the perfect design project:

1. Engage the wider community during the consultation

Gaining comment and inspiration from teachers, pupils, parents and maintenance staff is the best way to ensure any project meets and hopefully exceeds the ambitions of the client.

Rather than asking a simple "What do you want?" we provided a number of consultation questions, such as "What do you currently like/dislike externally" and "What would you like to be able to do in your school grounds?" to prompt deeper thought and provide better insights for us as designers.

2. Interpret aspirations and transform ideas into inspired designs

Inevitably, early consultation comments can include unachievable aspirations. Rather than dismiss these requests or take them literally, we strive to incorporate the sensations or experiential qualities the children are seeking with these elements into our landscape designs.

For example, At Ivybridge Primary School the pupils had requested a bouncy castle and helter skelter. We were able to install a bouncy board belt feature that provided the bouncy castle sensation and replicate the swing and spin sensation of a helter skelter by incorporating a basket swing.

3. Support the client through the decision making process

School communities usually find hand drawn sketches far easier to interpret and understand than 2D CAD models. We developed three initial interpretations of the design brief, including annotated plans, hand drawn sketches and precedent images, while developing detailed indications of costs for different elements and features to make the school’s decision making as easy and informed as possible.

This was also a fantastic opportunity to involve pupils and use the design process to develop their mathematical and comparison skills.

4. Bring the design to life

Where possible we undertake construction during school holidays to minimise disruption to teaching. In the case of Ivybridge Primary School the construction phase was mostly carried out over the summer holidays, achieving completion on schedule, within budget and to a very high standard.

5. Our work is done - time to celebrate!

Projects like this are extremely rewarding and make me proud to be a landscape architect. With the playground completed in November 2016 we’ve had some excellent feedback on how the pupils have been enjoying their new learning and play area, as well as how teachers are finding innovative ways of bringing the curriculum outside of the classroom.

I look forward to my next playground project!

The above images show some of the features we included in the Ivybridge Primary School playground design, including a basket swing for inclusive play, a slope climbing area to make us of previously unused space, outdoor classrooms and a wet play fountain. 

 

UK & Europe,

I have always been of the view that the huge push for gender diversity we see so frequently in engineering firms is condescending and undermining to women. I don’t need a support network when I see myself as equal. I don’t need motivational sessions from ‘empowered women’ when I see no difference between the ‘empowered women’ and the more competent of my male colleagues around me.

Strong and weak people come in both genders, and by categorising ourselves as empowered, we succumb to the stale stereotype that women are weaker than men, and we degrade ourselves whilst complaining that it is the men that are degrading us. In my relatively short experience as an engineer, I have received nothing but respect from my male counterparts; the only sexism I have encountered was from another female engineer who, for some reason, did not like having another woman in the office.

I felt patronised when colleagues asked how I thought they could attract more women to the firm. There isn’t an abundance of women with engineering degrees, where did they think they were going to attract them from?! Engineering was simply more for the male‐minded amongst us.

Recently however, whilst working on an international project with a global workforce, I specifically noticed one very alien concept: the Spanish engineers were an equal male‐female balance. In fact, on researching the figures, I discovered that the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineers in the whole of Europe. Whilst I still disagree with the use of the word empowerment, I was forced to reconsider one thing; perhaps engineering isn’t for the male‐minded, perhaps there is no such thing, perhaps we are simply brain‐washed by British society into thinking women shouldn’t be engineers.

The Joint Council for Qualifications statistics shows girls out‐performing boys in STEM subjects at GCSE, yet those choosing engineering in the UK are 90% male on average. Why are so many girls in Britain steering clear of the industry, despite early high achievement?

Firstly, I asked myself why I became an engineer in this climate. Truth be told, I never wanted to be an Engineer; I fell in to it through a fortunate choice of university degree. I was a high flyer at school, I excelled at maths, science and art; and I dreamt about being an architect. The idea of being an engineer never competed. I was drawn to architecture; its prestige, its glamour, and its status. We see architecture portrayed in TV and film as a high‐flying career choice; do we ever see engineering portrayed like that?

The main response when I told people I wanted to be an architect was ‘oh, seven years of studying, I’m impressed’. I wanted that; the challenge, the pride in the achievement of it, and the glamour of the exclusive Royal Institute of British Architects. In reality, it’s a three year bachelor’s degree followed by four years of studying while you work. Engineering is more often than not a four year master’s degree and five years of on‐the‐job training.

It should hold glamour from the exclusive engineering institutions, and even more prestige from achievement. Instead, I turned my nose up at engineering; it wasn’t prestigious enough for my academic history, I didn’t want to spend my career dressed in overalls working in tunnels, I wasn’t captured by the concept perpetrated by British society.

Secondly, I asked a Spanish colleague how engineering is perceived in Spain. His main point was that the title ‘Engineer’ is protected; you cannot call yourself an engineer without going to university to achieve that status. There is much support for protection of the title in the UK, though many dismiss the notion that it would bring about a much needed change in the gender balance. He added that engineers are respected because the university process is tough. There is no additional chartership process in Spain; you come out of university as a fully‐fledged engineer, having completed six solid years of study. In Spain, to be an engineer is on a par with being a doctor or an architect; it is a career for the high‐flyer.

The parallels here are clear. In the UK, we lack a quantity of female engineers. In Spain, they do not. My reasons for avoiding the industry, though perfectly suited to it, were because I was looking for something non‐existent in the British perception of engineering, the same things that are actually fundamental to the Spanish perception.

Despite our lack of the protection that the Spanish enjoy, why can’t engineering offer the same promise in the UK? It will be more difficult with the ‘BT engineer’ and the ‘dishwasher engineer’ distracting from the rebranding, but it isn’t impossible. Why can’t engineering be seen as glamourous, exciting and exclusive without prejudice?

In a society that sets so much score by status, why are we not giving it one? How many girls (and more boys!) are taking a different a path because they don’t truly know what a career in engineering can offer them? STEM outreach should not be limited to showing school children what engineers do day to day, but should extend to showing society that we’re achievers, we’re smart, and our work is challenging, prestigious and professionally recognised. And why can’t we see this portrayed through TV and film?

Engineering isn’t ‘masculine’, nor is it dirty work. Provide engineering with the status is deserves and an influx in women will follow, and what’s more, it will come naturally, and without undermining the women who already work in the sector.

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

Figures recently shared in the Guardian show that the number of students seeking counselling at university has rocketed by 50% in the last five years, putting services under increasing pressure.

This is in part due to increased pressure for students to get high grades and subsequently good jobs in order to warrant their increasing debts and indeed, pay them off. Interestingly, experts also have attributed a large part of the increase to a new willingness among young people to ask for help, particularly noting an increase in the number of young men approaching counselling services. This increase reflects a wider societal shift, with millennials more tuned into their own wellbeing than they’ve ever been before. For them, it has become a priority, rather than a nice to have, and they will make a decision based on how happy or healthy a job or university will make them feel.

As architects and designers we have an essential role to play in creating spaces that actively improve the health of people using them. This is particularly important in high pressure environments such as universities, where students can spend extended periods studying indoors. By designing spaces to incorporate plenty of natural light, clean air circulation and giving users a sense of community and ownership, we can make a real positive impact on the wellbeing of students.

However, making people happier and healthier is more than just a noble ambition. Students with greater access to daylight have been found to achieve 5-14% higher test scores and learn 20-26% faster, creating a real incentive for universities to start taking wellbeing seriously. Now, having inspiring and uplifting buildings is a necessity if universities are to distinguish themselves from the competition and attract the best students.

I welcome this shift and it’s something myself and the wider architecture team at Atkins have been considering in our projects for some time now. Bournemouth University is an excellent example of a project where we’ve applied our WellBriefing service, a tool that engages with building users to incorporate their wellbeing needs into the design brief right from the outset.

Designing buildings for the people that use them not only makes economic sense, it’s key to creating a lasting legacy. This is even truer in institutions like universities that are nurturing our future generations; we have an obligation to help improve young people’s wellbeing wherever we can.

UK & Europe, North America,

My compatriot, the celebrated Danish architect, urbanist and city planner Jan Gehl, first introduced the idea of the 5kph city and the 60kph city; the difference being that the former was designed with pedestrians in mind, while the latter puts the emphasis on motorists.

You could reasonably say that large swathes of our rapidly growing cities in the Middle East are closer to 120kph cities. That isn’t to say that they’re visually dull. In fact, far from it, but the buildings which make up the region’s impressive skylines have, in general, been designed as individual objects which are best appreciated from a car at distance – or at high velocity. Get out of the car and up close and there tends to be little for the human eye and soul to connect with.

The other, closely linked notion to which most Scandinavian architects are passionate about is human scale in architecture. This is based on the idea that people are able to better interact with the urban environment when it is based on their own physical dimensions and capabilities.

It stands to reason, perhaps, that historic cities built before the age of the car most naturally fit into the mould of the 5kph environment. Copenhagen my hometown, is an excellent example of human scale architectural detailing that encourages pedestrian and cycling activities; this applies not only to historic buildings but also to its bold and distinctive modern architecture.

Newer cities have tended to evolve in a different way, which has been dominated by people’s desire to use private cars. The response from clients and designers has been to focus not on detail, but on being able to capture attention within seconds and from afar. This applies to public space as much as it does to buildings – but what about pedestrians? And what about community? At street level, there is little to offer.

It’s taken some time, but the past five years or so has witnessed an awakening to this challenge in the Middle East. There’s an understanding that to build healthy communities – which evolved over hundreds of years in the “old world”, needs human scale. It needs interaction, fine detail and energy. As humans, we need some subtlety in our environments which encourages us to explore, ask questions and have fun.  

In Dubai, there are now some powerful examples of how this has been put into action to create a new city experience. For instance, Citywalk in Jumeirah and The Beach at JBR offer low-rise, retail centric developments which have quickly been embraced as part of the urban landscape. They promote social interaction of communities – something which is fundamental to improve quality of life and enable the creation of sustainable and liveable cities.

Human scale and a pedestrian friendly cities have long been at the heart of our thinking and when Atkins was appointed to design the Dubai Opera and the Opera District in Downtown Dubai it was pivotal to our idea. It is rare to have an opportunity to fully integrate a building in its context from the earliest master planning stage through to its functionality in the public realm. The vision of our client was very clear from the start and we had a great deal of freedom to bring it to reality. And that vision was very much in keeping with our thinking of a pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood – a 5kph city.

Because Dubai Opera sits within Emaar’s Downtown Dubai development, we were tasked with creating a building which must fulfil various roles. Not only should it showcase world-class cultural events to its guests, but the building should also be the iconic centrepiece of the new Opera District and a stimulus for a vibrant, creative public realm.

We had an opportunity to present much more than a stunning new building to the region. Our client’s vision was for a venue which, while hosting fabulous cultural performances within, would also transmit its energy and excitement to the whole community, making full use of its surrounding spaces including Sheikh Rashid bin Mohammed Boulevard, The Opera Plaza and Burj Lake Park. It is designed, therefore, to complement rather than compete with its surrounding area, spreading its cultural and artistic function from its internal transformable theatre onto an external multifunctional urban plaza, towards the adjacent walkways and alleyways of surrounding neighbourhoods.

An important dimension of the project is that it closes the circle of attraction points within Downtown Dubai – the others being the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall, as well as the centrepiece of Dubai Fountains. Of these attractions, Dubai Opera is unique in being able to offer a much more al fresco lifestyle as well as tactile involvement to the surrounding neighbourhood, so it was very important that we sought to take advantage of this.

Everything about the building is designed to draw people into its cultural and artistic offering. The building has a 360 degree lobby which is fully integrated with its public realm. The façade design is extremely complex; the glass frontage comprises of 1,710 individual façade and mullion sections, 1,270 individually sized glass panels, which are shaded by the roof overhang and 5 km externally mounted shading louvers. The aim is to make the building as transparent as possible, while keeping solar radiation out through passive design measures.

To this end, the glass is made as transparent as possible thanks to an internal and external anti-reflective coating. In the evening, the impact of this will be even more apparent because lighting is integrated within the buildings vertical columns building only – there is no external illumination. This will create the sense of a lantern which will offer a warm glow to onlookers and accentuate the impact of seeing guests inside the building. The lobby and public realm are therefore seen as one – a space where the audience become performers for residents and visitors of the neighbourhood when they are inside the building.

Arriving at Dubai Opera will also be part of the experience. There is no valet parking at the entrance to the building – guests will make a processional walk across the plaza to the lobby doors, creating a "theatre of people" surrounding the building. This, again, will help to bring the whole Opera District to life, animating its environs like nothing else in the city. The public realm around the building will capture the buzz from the Opera, with retail and cafes, and the opportunity for street performances. Importantly, navigating the area is encouraging pedestrian activities and movement ensuring a high level of accessibility, with plenty of walkways intersecting the boulevard to offer a feeling of openness and space.

It feels very fitting that, in creating Dubai’s new cultural beacon, we’ve had the opportunity to deliver something which is much more than an entertainment venue. We’ve been inspired by the chance to offer the city, and the region, a project which will truly engage passers-by at 5kph through its level of detail and its all-encompassing celebration of performance. Dubai Opera will exude the energy, creativity and excitement of its audience, setting the mood for the whole neighbourhood. I can’t wait to see them perform!

This article was originally featured in ME Consultant

Middle East,

I’m sure many people would see this article and say “Surely it’s your job and not the space you’re in that makes you happy at work!” but clearly, people don’t perform at their best when the physical environment becomes a barrier to doing their job. And if we really want to improve UK productivity, it’s not something we can ignore.

We need to get the basics of air quality, light, noise and temperature right in our workplaces as they have a significant impact on our ability to function effectively. In fact, research has found that good ventilation can result in 11% productivity gains, while distracting sounds can result in a staggering 66% drop in performance.

But it’s not just about the physical aspects of our built environment, it’s about how the workplace make us feel. People need a working environment where they feel comfortable, have a sense of belonging and feel connected to the people around them. However, the Ipsos poll found 30% of Brits currently consider their workplace impersonal, almost twice the global average.

Providing employees with better working environments can also play a large part in helping to ease the huge personal and economic burden associated with mental health illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, estimated by the World Health Organisation to cost UK employers £30b each year.

What the Ipsos survey (see graph from The Telegraph) underlined for me is that in the UK we do not truly understand the importance of our built environment and the impact it has on us. It’s a real wasted opportunity and with the average person spending 90% of their life indoors we’re all suffering as a result.

Northern European cultures more readily recognise the importance of our environment to our wellbeing. This coincides with countries such as Norway and Sweden having labour productivity rates over 2%higher than those in the UK. Of course there will be many factors  influencing these figures but I do believe that this is, at least in part, a result of these countries considering employee wellbeing in their workplaces.

Another interesting correlation from this study appears to be the link between open plan offices and dissatisfaction. With half of UK workspaces now being open plan (twice the global average), that’s potentially a big problem. But this shift in office design hasn’t just being driven by cost saving and the need to reduce square footage, it’s also been part of a well-intentioned attempt to promote flexible working, collaboration, and interaction. So, how do we balance the two?

As designers we need to understand that ‘flexible space’ doesn’t just mean open plan. It means providing a variety of spaces that support a range of activities and then getting the blend of these right. We have a duty to get the psychological as well as the physiological aspects of the workplace right, for the benefit of staff and the improved productivity that UK companies will benefit from.

To find out more about how Atkins are putting wellbeing at the heart of their building design click here.

UK & Europe,

Two weeks ago, I packed my baby's bag (we're still at the breastfeeding stage), and took him along with me to the judging sessions for WICE Mentor of the Year in London. I wasn't going to, but realised that if one of my mentees suggested that as a basis for not going, I'd tell them to think again. And for me, that's why I mentor: because it makes me a better person. Not in a "better than you" kind of way; in a way that being a parent turns you into the kind of person you want your kids to be. It encourages me to give my best in life, to go for the things I want to do, even if they're a stretch. (And how would I have ever known that my baby sleeps better on the train?)

“Why do you mentor?” was the question posed to us during introductions at the Women in Construction and Engineering awards interview day in London last month. It’s a good question. Why do we mentor? Not to be the best at it, that’s for sure (though the recognition is of course very nice). Mentoring is all about other people, but of course there’s something in it for the mentors too.

As a mentor I talk candidly about my own experiences, because my experience, my perspective, might help others. I’m often surprised when a mentee tells me something made sense to them because of what we’d spoken about. Of course I should know how this works by now, but it is still funny to think that just by talking, I’ve helped somebody with their own perspective. I learn more about myself by doing this, and I also consolidate my own knowledge – is there a better way of checking you’ve understood something than by explaining it to others?

Are you convinced yet? If you want to mentor, be open, be available. As a mentoring scheme coordinator, I still think the best relationships are organic. Mentoring just clicks better if your mentee has sought you out. Of course, there are ways to get started until that happens. Volunteer to become a mentor on a formal scheme (such as those for chartership). Contact your university and ask if they have a scheme you could join as a mentor and they’ll match you up. Tell your colleagues you’re interested in mentoring and see if they know someone in search of a mentor who you’d be a good fit for.

Finally… Do you have a mentor? We don’t outgrow mentoring, so in the same way you have much to offer through your own experiences, gaining someone else’s perspective on your own challenges can add so much to your own development. Is there someone who has a particular strength you admire? Ask them to be your mentor, offer to buy them a coffee, and I guarantee you they’ll say yes!

Atkins has seven finalists in the Women in Construction Engineering Mentor of the Year Awards taking place on 19 May 2016.

Why don't you mentor?:

I don't have time to mentor.

How much time could you spare? 30 minutes? 15 minutes? The time it takes to eat your lunch?

No one mentored me.

Really? Not even a cub leader or a rugby coach? Well, maybe that's an even better reason to do it. Be the change!

I don't know how.

If you've ever asked a question and listened to the answer, you've started.

I'm an introvert.

So might your mentee be!

No one else does it.

How do you know? Is that a good reason for doing / not doing anything?

 

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

The Northern Powerhouse agenda has the potential to change the economic path of the North of England. Many previous attempts haven’t managed to deliver the scale of change required. Ultimately, to really shift the path of the North’s economy we need some big ideas to move us forward.

I like to start by looking at what others do around the world. For this reason it's sensible to start in the Netherlands when talking about cycling. The Netherlands’ cycle network is the envy of the world and whilst the flat topography is a huge advantage; the infrastructure is key. This includes segregated bicycle tracks, parking and changing facilities. I believe that the North of England has the potential to create a cycle network that could radically alter how people travel to work, school and for leisure along with reducing congestion and improving quality of life.

The North of England is a diverse geographic area. However, there are several intra-urban linkages which could benefit from improved cycle infrastructure. Key urban areas in the North are close enough to each other to have significant cycling movements between them, for example Newcastle to Sunderland, Bradford to Leeds, Barnsley to Sheffield. If you are reading this and are familiar with the congestion between Manchester and Warrington, primarily on the M60 and M62, you may want to consider how congestion could reduce if the 18 mile route between Manchester and Warrington was easier to cycle. In many parts of the North, there is existing infrastructure such as canals, old railway lines and roads, which could be adapted to improve the cycle network and provide a viable option for commuters.

What’s the big deal about bikes?
The health benefits from cycling are well known but understated. As someone who is comparative late comer to cycling, the health benefits are striking. Cycling is low impact, a cardiovascular workout and is reported to reduce stress. These are seen to be a key reasons cycling prevents around 11,000 deaths each year in the Netherlands and Dutch people have half a year longer life expectancy than the average European. There are also benefits of school children cycling, with strong cycle networks pointing to their lower rates of obesity, better performance in sports and improved attendance levels.

The economic benefits are also calculated to outweigh investment. A reported €0.5 billion investment per year by the Dutch government on road and parking infrastructure for cycling estimated to yield total economic health benefits of €19 billion per year, linked to health, job and environmental benefits. This goes back to the idea that if you focus on the outcome you may decide on some surprising outputs to achieve it.

The North has already shown that it can host the ‘Tour de France’, maybe now it’s time we designed and created a cycle network, linked with the wider transport infrastructure to support local people, businesses and the economy in the North of England.

UK & Europe,

The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) region, however, has never been afraid of challenging established thinking – least of all the UAE. I see its new ministry as typical of the forward, dynamic thinking that has helped these desert states undergo such incredible development during the past 40 years. 

Having been so successful in delivering the physical infrastructure to support its vision for economic and social growth and prosperity, the UAE is operating at a level in which it can now prioritise the wellbeing and satisfaction of its people. 

HH Sheikh Mohammed’s announcement called for “a government with its purpose to build a virtuous society, a forgiving environment, close families, educated generations and equal economic opportunities for all”. 

That's inspirational thinking, as was His Highness's statement about government flexibility: "We don't need more ministries, but more ministers capable of dealing with change."  

Government bodies are seldom known for being agile and flexible, but these are exactly the attributes needed by modern states as they grapple with the global challenges of today, among the foremost of which are population growth and urbanisation. 

This region has already been subjected to these twin issues far more than most parts of the world. Between 1950-2010, the population of the GCC grew by more than 10 times (1053%), compared global population growth of 174%. 

Between now and 2050, the population of the MENA region is expected to more than double, while by 2015 88% of the region's population is forecast to be living in cities – it’s absolutely right that this is driving lateral thinking from government, while also demanding creativity and innovation from industry. 

This includes, of course, the construction sector. We have an outstanding opportunity to make a positive difference for the region, while helping to build its competitive advantage. The nature of our work means we're among the true custodians of the built environment, and we're better placed than anyone to support the region's governments in the management and delivery of social, economic and environmental change (the goal being societal "happiness"). 

In order to do this, it’s essential that we’re creating environments which are fit for the future, and which take into account the scale of change which is being forecast. If we fail in this, today’s infrastructure will quickly become redundant. 

It was with this in mind that we at Atkins adopted our Future Proofing Cities approach five years ago to help clients (first in the developing world, and more recently the UK) to identify the opportunities and risks – and from there the potential solutions – to ensure their projects have fully considered long term needs. 

We're now adapting this thinking in response to the very particular needs of GCC cities. While a common thread in most parts of the world is the need to increase infrastructure funding at the city level, in this region funding itself is less of a problem. Even now, with oil prices at their lowest level in over a decade, there's a fundamental understanding that investment is essential in order to support long term economic diversification and growth. 

That's a great starting position, and it means that the core challenge is about focus and prioritisation in order to ensure that the right portfolio of solutions are assembled to address the individual needs of each city. 

Coming back to the UAE, what's so impressive about its new Ministry of Happiness is the fact that it shows how the leadership really "get it" when it comes to the number one priority. They know that to create a city which really works, and which embraces new ideas and technology in the right way, they need to put PEOPLE first. And a by-product of that will be happy people – productive, successful residents and an environment which attracts tourists and other visitors time and time again. 

Middle East,

What’s 12 times 7? Chances are you don’t need to work too hard to answer that one. Simple multiplication was drilled into us as children. It’s likely that you got the answer quicker than you thought you might. It’s just there. But if I was to ask you a harder sum while we were walking along the street, chances are you would stop while your brain worked on the problem.

These examples are easy illustrations about the different ways we tackle problems, and is what Daniel Kanneman refers to as ‘system 1’ and ‘system 2’ thinking.

In system 1, we rely on rules of thumb, experience, and our drilled knowledge to get an answer quickly. In system 2, we have to think, to go back to fundamentals, to work out an answer. System 1 is where we spend a lot of our time. It’s how we manage to drive complex machines, as we learn to move from thinking about every move, and every action, and with practice, it becomes natural, easy.

However, while we often rely on ‘rules of thumb’ or heuristics in our engineering lives, we have to be careful, because relying on this approach brings a risk, the risk of introducing biases. These are many and varied, but here are some that are pertinent to our engineering work.

Action biases

A number of these come down to our overconfidence when things seem to go right. People will often underestimate how long it can take to complete tasks, and therefore don’t add contingency to deal with problems when they crop up. Under pressure, the ‘band-aid’ solutions seem attractive, but don’t end up dealing with the problems, rather only the symptoms.

As process engineers, we often pride ourselves on being ‘expert generalists’. It’s easy to forget that this is not a universal skill.

Perceiving and judging alternatives

It is surprisingly difficult to recognise we are wrong, once we’ve made a decision. We’re good at spotting patterns, coming up with explanations and theories as to what is going on.

What is more difficult is when we have misunderstood something. For example, during early-stage production of a North Sea FPSO (floating production storage and offloading vessel), the operators were struggling with an issue. The marine system was meant to be designed so that production would flow evenly to port and starboard storage tanks, and the boat would therefore stay level.

However, flow was preferentially going to one tank side, and as a result, the operators were switching from one tank to another by opening and closing the divertor valves on the control system. Soon after one of those changes, a high pressure alarm came up on the cargo tank pumps. But since they knew they were having problems with some of the instruments, and the valve was open on the system, they over-rode the trip, and started up again. A high liquid level trip came up, so they over-rode that as well. The flow backed up into the flare drum, into the glycol system, shut down the compression and blew the liquid from the flare drum out of the flare and onto the sea below. Luckily, the tanker that was coming in to pick up the first cargo had not yet arrived, so there were no injuries.

Once the dust settled the crew realised they had misdiagnosed the cause. They had all the classic symptoms of a blocked outlet, but their control console was showing an open outlet, so they diagnosed failed instruments, not valve closed.

A more severe version of this problem caused the meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant as the operators worked to solve a problem which was the opposite of the one they had. And there are many more similar mistakes in accident reports, both minor and major.

While things are developing, we need to make sure that we continue to ask if we are correct, and evaluate different alternatives, rather than just following the first one and disregarding evidence that we are wrong.

Groupthink

Some of the meetings that I chair are short, maybe one or two days, to examine a modification. The agenda is arranged in such a way that higher risk items are addressed earlier, and it can be hard to keep the level of thinking about hazards high enough as the end of the day looms.

It’s at times like this that I really like the way one of my clients behaves and thinks. As we’ve reached the end of the day and ask “are there any other issues that we’d like to raise?” I always watch for this client to see if I can see that he has entered deep think mode, then we wait for him. Many times, he’s asked the killer question, “but what if?”, and identified something new, tricky, or that the rest of us might have missed. Discussing that scenario has resulted in better designs, better risk management, and often lower cost as well.

This client is impervious to groupthink, that psychological term for when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment”.

It can exasperate a team to deal with this type of person in a meeting, but given a choice, I’d always have at least one of him around. Often, this group-think can be minimised by rotating personnel into the team to keep it fresh. But it does take a pretty strong character to challenge a set of norms once they are established in team.

Egocentrism

We focus on our own point of view, ignoring that others don’t have all the information or the understanding that we have. If we don’t face the consequences of our decisions ourselves, it’s hard to imagine the consequences for others.

In the offshore oil and gas industry, it is quite possible to have spent a long and successful career designing facilities without ever seeing the metal you have been slaving over for years, so what could be significant operations problems are not even noticed, never mind designed out.

Another interesting concept is the much used ‘lessons learned’ approach. Project teams are happy to sit down at the end of the project, publish a report on what went well and lessons to be learned for posterity.

The thing about lessons learned is that publishing is only half the battle. Not until the person who needs to know that piece of information has been able to receive it, understand it, and internalise it for future use could you claim ‘lessons learned’ have indeed been learned. Before that, they are ‘learning opportunities’, and quite weak ones at that.

So we are more likely not to repeat our own mistakes, than repeat the mistakes of others. We engineers are more likely to focus on significant incident causes within our own experience, rather than the highest priority incident causes. We are more comfortable interacting with others like ourselves, so we organise ourselves into single-discipline silos, or ‘communities of practice’, and then hope that mashing together that approach with the other disciplines will give us the best integrated solution.

We all have a tendency to reduce the likelihood of an event happening if it hasn’t happened to us personally and to overestimate frequency if it has happened. I’ve seen many designs where there are group estimates of likelihood, but little post-start-up review that these estimates were correct.

Admit it, you’re biased

Humans are complex beings, the product of experience, education, talent, and interactions. We can be amazingly good at doing complex things, understanding how to process raw materials into the basis for our life across the planet.

And while a lot of things are being computerised – a recent study from the University of Oxford predicted that while there was a 99% chance that the job of telemarketer be replaced by computers in 20 years’ time, and even a 55% chance that commercial pilots would be no longer needed, there was only a 1.7% chance that chemical engineers wouldn’t exist.

So we are difficult to replace by computer, but still flawed. The more you read in this area, the more you learn what we can get wrong. So rather than tackling every bias ever, I’ll leave you with some homework, or opportunities to learn more.

An edited version of this article was first published in the September 2015 edition of tce magazine, published by the Institution of Chemical Engineers.

www.thechemicalengineer.com

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

The Northern Powerhouse initiative has the potential to change the economic path of the North of England. It also has the potential to be a lot of rhetoric which does not go anywhere. At the moment the Government’s agenda is heavily transport led. There are also a series of exciting developments in other areas across the North of England including plans for regeneration of city and town centres, devolution allowing locally led decision making, and new ways of supplying power to business and communities. All these can help unlock economic growth across the North of England.

Working in economic development I am always pleased to see new attempts to improve the economies, lives and prospects of those from communities across the UK. Many previous approaches have not delivered the scale of change required. To change the path of the North’s economy I think we need some big ideas which are implemented in full.

I have a series of ideas which I would like to propose which I believe could change the path of the North of England’s economy, society and environment.I explain one idea below (with more to follow) and am happy to hear thoughts and counter arguments to each. Please comment or get in touch.

Idea 1: 5 hours a week of careers advice for high school students
My first ‘big idea’ is that high school students are offered 5 hours of careers advice a week, delivered by businesses or professional institutions. This is a huge amount of time for careers advice given the competing priorities for students. However, careers advice, information and guidance can contribute to several key aspects of young people’s lives and the economy in general.

  • Increased time for focused careers advice could make a real change to:
    Raising Aspiration – More business led careers advice could broaden horizons, as well as deepen knowledge and understanding of possible job and training opportunities. It could boost self-esteem, confidence and self-awareness of their own strengths and qualities.
  • Skills Shortages - There is critical shortage of engineers in the UK, including across the North of England. This is a serious situation where skills shortages as well as demographic factors (e.g. ageing workforce) could exacerbate delays and rising costs in large infrastructure projects.
  • Supporting Social Mobility - It is calculated that 1 in 3 children are affected by poverty in some areas of the North. Providing information on potential careers and routes into them can provide young people with more knowledge about potential future jobs and give them confidence to seek employment in different areas.

Not all young adults have a career in mind when they are in high school or college. Many do not decide on a career until they are in the world of work, after which time it becomes too expensive or time intensive to retrain. Providing young people with more information on potential careers provides individuals with better information to make decisions. This in turn can benefit the economy. Better supply of skills and matching of demand with skills in the labour market could be worth a reported £10.6 billion to the economy annually. Furthermore increased careers advice could also offer other benefits including more rounded education, fostering strong links between businesses and schools, supporting the apprenticeship agenda and reducing public expenditure on infrastructure.

UK & Europe,

The stratospheric rise of the use of BIM in the design, construction and operation of infrastructure, buildings and other assets has changed the way that project teams work together, demanding new levels of collaboration. “When you are using BIM to its fullest extent you really need the team to come together at the early stages of a project to sort out things like digital engineering workflow, and a digital plan of work - things that didn’t used to exist before,” explains Donna Huey, director of strategic ventures for Atkins in North America. “However the people that have historically come together at such early stages aren’t necessarily those that have the expertise to sort out these new challenges. So our project and discipline leaders are having to learn new skills - even a new language - to ensure that they are taking the right decisions in those early foundational elements of a project.”

By bringing the project data together into a single information model the use of BIM creates a virtual project environment that the entire project team can work within. “It’s interesting because it’s not just about technology, it’s about collaborative working, which is such a buzz word. It means that the timing is right to ensure that professionals and clients are digitally enabled,” says Anne Kemp, director of BIM at Atkins and vice-chair of BuildingSMART UK and Ireland, a collaborative industry body set up to develop standards, tools and training that facilitate the open use of BIM.

Ensuring this digital enablement starts in the very early stages of a project means a lot more communication. “There are so many more interdependencies in the early stages. You have to talk and coordinate what you do. You can’t work in isolation but that is sometimes an uncomfortable place for some people in the design space,” says Huey, explaining that encouraging people to meet in the middle is an important step in facilitating the greater collaboration that BIM enables. “So whether you are an executive that has to roll up your sleeves and learn more about the technology so that you can be a better leader or whether it means you are a CAD or BIM designer used to working more in isolation and now you have to be more visible and communicative, we are trying to help people meet in the middle,” says Huey. 

New relationships

Within the virtual world of the building information model itself the interactions between project teams, whether that is internally or externally, are changing. Sharing a digital space means new kinds of relationships form. “When we were face to face it was a more tactile environment. We could physically read the room with instinct and emotional intelligence. In the virtual world we haven’t got that,” says Kemp, explaining that in the absence of physical clues to be interpreted new ways of building relationships are emerging. “How do we develop a trusting, robust relationship virtually, on a one to one or a team basis? How can you engender trust in a virtual world? Part of it is through data. Are you sharing the data, is the data trustworthy, is it reliable, is it consistent, are you allowing it to be shared in a timely manner and in a way that can be understood?”

This data sharing is where the real opportunities of BIM emerge says Kemp, as the flow of information is reliable, controlled and available to the project team, opening up some of the silos that previously existed between different teams and different organisations. This in turn enables better decision making with more clarity about the project outcomes from a very early stage.

The ability to show the impact of the design in a 3D way is proving to be a powerful tool for designers who are able to demonstrate options to clients like never before. “We are delivering a project for a client in Atlanta at the moment, and we felt the best design solution should include a bridge. Using BIM, we were able to produce multiple options in a true-to-site virtual environment,” says Chris Harman, Atkins’ senior engineer in the aviation department in North America. “When the stakeholders saw the options modelled, they realised the value of the design that included the bridge. We were able to deliver this quickly. Without BIM it would have taken significant time and money to achieve the same outcome.”

Harman would know. As a senior engineer he is experienced with working with and without digital tools like BIM and as the technology emerged over the past decade he was one of the first to champion its potential. “In the beginning, our managers would say ‘are you guys going to use BIM to deliver this?’ The thought at the time was that we didn’t have the time or the money to deliver in 3D, but I would tell my managers we can’t afford not to deliver this way,” he says. And the opportunities that this gave clients quickly became clear. “In the last 10 years clients expect us to deliver change much faster. BIM has allowed us to give clients what they want late in the game with ongoing coordination.”

Harman too has been impressed by the benefits of better collaboration. “The whole team is working on one model rather than everyone in silos. It makes it easier to collaborate, especially on multidisciplinary projects - you can see what everyone else is doing. In the same way that clients are able to get a feel for the end product, we can see what another group is trying to do. The culture has changed.” 

Learning curve

For Harman, a senior engineer and technical specialist, being an early adopter at the cutting edge of BIM meant watching the emergence of new software updates and learning by doing.  “If you wait for training to come along you will be two years behind,” he says but points out that he then shares his findings internally by delivering training to other engineers, technicians and modellers. “If we are going to be using this new tech as it comes out we can’t wait for there to be training modules,” he says.

Empowering people like Harman to find their own way is a key part of Atkins’ strategy in this field, and is particularly important for young professionals. “There is a culture of mentoring, a culture of empowering people to find their own way and this is really important in this digital shift and the use of BIM and collaborative working,” says Kemp, explaining that dramatic technology changes in the past decade mean that younger professionals are already digitally enabled so supporting the application of this is key. “Our young managers are digitally au-fait and we need to ensure that appropriate wisdom is cascaded through so that they can learn this appropriately without us imposing unnecessary assumptions on them.”

This also means ensuring that there is not an over reliance on the data and that engineering skill, knowledge and application is not lost.

At the same time it also means more focus on the data itself. Recently, Atkins revealed the development of a new BIM tool that will enable the comparison of multiple construction materials at the outset of a project to provide a clear understanding of capital cost against the long term environmental impact. The tool which was developed in collaboration with the British University in Dubai will radically improve how construction materials are evaluated to meet the environmental impact requirements of LEED V4. “BIM is a hugely powerful resource but it will only ever be as good as the information which is put into it,” says Simon Nummy, Atkins’ sustainable design manager for rail. “By enriching our BIM tools with high quality, reliable information on materials we’ll be able to make more informed decisions at the outset of projects and programmes, with a clear understanding of cost, environmental impact and design implications.”

“It’s exciting because the tool will motivate an integrated design process right at the start of major projects,” says former Masters student Toufik Jabbour, who now works for Atkins as 6D BIM specialist, leading the development of the tool. “And that’s what BIM is all about. It improves knowledge and changes behaviours to deliver construction projects which are more sustainable in every sense of the word.”

More about BIM

BIM involves the creation of intelligence 3D models that are supported by relevant digital data. It is a ‘virtual project’ that then becomes a single source of information used to inform and assist the client and the project team during design, construction and even the asset management phases. BIM brings together three important strands of information management: people, process and technology. Read more here.

 

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

At the heart of every aspect of our complex environment is a human. It could be the air traffic controller and pilot navigating the flight for your holiday this summer, or the check-in staff, baggage handlers and security staff at the airport, or you as you scan your passport through the electronic passport reader, or the postal staff who process and deliver your postcard home…

You may be reading this article now on your smartphone, or your tablet or laptop or perhaps a smart TV. It is clear that the way we interact with information and our environment is consistently developing and evolving. But for systems to operate safely and effectively, they must be designed to support the people who operate them.

The study of Human Factors & Ergonomics (HFE) allows us to understand human interfaces with complex systems so we can develop and optimise our design solutions, and ultimately minimise the potential for human error. Ergonomics and Human Factors plays a key role in the design and engineering of successful systems and environments.

My route to working in Engineering was unexpected, and didn’t follow a conventional route. When I was 15 at college, I received a letter informing me that I would be spending my week of work experience at an engineering company specialising in integrity management of offshore oil and gas installations – I’ll be honest, it wasn’t exactly my first choice.

Later at 18 – while my friends celebrated their A-Level results, I was on the phone trying to secure a place at University as I was just short of the grades needed for my first choice of degree Psychology, I didn’t plan for events to pan out that way!

During that day I got a call from the admissions tutor at Loughborough University who offered me a place on the Ergonomics course instead. I had heard a little bit about Ergonomics before, but the course admission tutor asked if I had heard of Piper Alpha, or the Kegworth Air Disaster. We continued to talk, and while discussing these major accidents didn’t do much to lift my mood that day, I began to understand how the study of Ergonomics and Human Factors contributes to our understanding and ability to learn from these accidents.

All things considered, I didn’t expect or plan to embark on a career in engineering. But I wouldn’t change those experiences for the world – they led me to where I am, and I love my job. I have worked both in the UK and abroad. I work on really varied projects in Rail, Nuclear, Oil & Gas and Aviation, and everyday I learn something new about our complex engineered systems and environments, and the people that work with them.

"I have found that Science & Engineering is more than might appear initially… It’s more than physics and maths. It’s design and technology, social sciences and humanities, English and drama. Above all it’s about people."

There is increased focus in schools, the media, and in Government around ways to encourage girls to consider careers within Engineering and Science professions. I’d like to add a slightly different perspective and show that from my experience, it isn’t necessary to study just the traditional engineering subjects of Maths, Physics and Chemistry to work in Engineering. It’s certainly beneficial and paves the way to become a Chartered Engineer, and more female engineers in the future is definitely a good thing. Diversity of gender, knowledge and culture creates a strong team.

There are other routes to a challenging, exciting, rewarding and enjoyable career in Engineering. I studied English, Art, and Psychology and Biology – I didn’t know it at the time but a combination of design and social sciences, and English to provide strength in writing and reasoning a strong argument, really lend themselves to a career in Engineering, particularly to become an Ergonomist or Human Factors Consultant.

So in summary if things don’t turn out the way you expected, pick a different route – challenge yourself. Keep your eyes open to new things, and say yes when new opportunities arise, even if they might appear to be difficult or challenging. And most important of all, if you’re not sure, ask questions and find out!

UK & Europe,

As spring arrives, a new batch of grads are eager to enter the next phase of their lives and begin navigating their careers. It can be an intimidating time, with a whole new set of rules in play. The behaviors and skills that may have helped you be a standout in school may not necessarily make you a leader at work. For what it may be worth to you, I am sharing what I feel to be critical bits of life experiences I gained over the last 28 years, which I simply feel may be beneficial in the infancy of your career.

 

  1. Keep your ego in check. The leaders I’ve come to admire have been humble and work hard to manage their egos. They are down to earth and rub elbows with everyone. Egos are short-lived, fragile, and often get in the way. Learn to check your ego at the door and learn approachable openness.
  2. For as many times as you state your opinion, ask twice as many questions. Now is the time to ask questions and listen to what others have to say. Go broad and deep for sources of those answers and learn to filter the responses.
  3. Be bold—you can afford early mistakes. Youthful energy is a valuable tool. Go for what you think may be impossible and you’ll likely surprise yourself. If you fall short, take some time to reflect on what lessons you can take away—then shake it off and press forward. You have time to your advantage.
  4. Cherish your client relationships. Nothing may be more valuable in your career as the client relationships you develop. Nourish your business development skills and use them daily. And don’t ever let those clients go, ever!
  1. Watch the balance in your life. This will likely not be what you want to hear, but early on, imbalance may be necessary to become established in your career. Just be sure to level out once you get established. I’ve found that balance wins out over burnout.
  2. Realize you are in competition with your peers. Know that you are being compared to your peers. Pick out your absolute best peer, and go outwork them. It’s a great way to stretch your abilities. But remember to always compete with class!
  3. Grab onto a mentor or two. Don’t underestimate the need for someone to help pull you along in your career, push you towards opportunities, help clear political barriers, and give you a fair chance to get out from under the “hardened upper crust.” It’s much easier to learn from someone else’s experience than to repeat their mistakes. And don’t be timid to ask, it’s actually quite charming when a humble young associate requests sincere guidance.
  4. Be brave enough to collaborate. In my experience this is a skill set few are born with, but is one of the most overlooked elements of success. You don’t need to have all the answers—foster the ability to lead a team in search of those answers. Develop this skill and do it early.
  5. Seriously consider your image and don’t overlook its impact. Take some time to consider every facet of your image—your fashion, promptness, language, office appearance, social life, reliability, etc. Groom and protect your image carefully, and understand that everything you put your name on is a direct reflection of you.
  6. Focus on what you like to do, but remember the things you hate to do. Follow your passions—that is likely where your natural strengths are. Of equal importance is to remember what you hate to do—those are likely the things you are not good at (and may just be your unraveling).
  1. Don’t be afraid to take on a difficult job. Taking the job nobody else wants may be an opportunity to make a name for yourself as the “go-to” person. By taking on a difficult job, you’ll gather new skills out of necessity and will likely outpace those in “safe” jobs. This is also the time to travel—jump at those opportunities early.
  2. Know who you are and what you stand for. Take a good look in the mirror and figure out what your personal values are. Then, draw a line in the sand and make a stand for those values without fail. This will help bring clarity in difficult situations and prevent you from compromising yourself.
  3. Lastly, PERFECT YOUR PEOPLE SKILLS. Business is all about relationships, and always will be. Clients, peers, and supervisors want to work with people they enjoy interacting with. Don’t be afraid to show them gentleness and kindness. Also, embrace diversity in your inner circle—expand your understanding of a wide variety of people, cultures, and differing viewpoints.

 

Do you have some great career advice to add to the list? I’d love to hear it. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

North America,

One of the most significant challenges facing the energy sector is the impending retirement of the ‘baby boomer’ generation – our most experienced engineers. As highlighted in the Energy section of the report, the UK has not built a new nuclear power station for more than 20 years, meaning the only engineers with the relevant skills and experience will either be in the later stages of their career or have gained their knowledge from overseas. To be losing these individuals and their experience to retirement is itself a crisis. Coupled with a shortage of young engineers coming through the system, we are going to struggle to resource projects at both ends of the spectrum.

With the government’s National Infrastructure Plan containing energy projects totalling £274bn, with £194.7bn of that already in construction and £80.2bn set aside for future investment, skills must continue to be a top priority in the ever evolving energy landscape. These are large scale projects which will need high levels of experienced, technical and safety engineering professionals to deliver the programmes such as Moorside and Hinkley Point C, as well as the potential for new approaches like the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon to come online alongside maintenance of existing infrastructure.

We are also witnessing increasing levels of engineers moving across sectors. With fewer people with the right skills available, wages will be used, as we are already seeing today, as a mechanism to attract the best talent onto key infrastructure projects. This in turn will have a rippling impact across all the infrastructure sectors. As wages are driven up, this puts additional cost pressures on projects. It is important that this is accounted for as projects are developed.

The need for new energy infrastructure has already driven the sector to focus very carefully in recent years on the current skills resources available and what we need to do to tackle a skills shortage. Hinkley Point C is a great example of business and government working collaboratively, identifying a skills gap and plugging it. With specific qualifications and training on many energy projects, it’s important we have funding and opportunities for individuals to be skilled up to the standards required on these projects. This is why government, which recognised the training needs of this major infrastructure project demand extra resource, allocated £1.275 million to support a consortium of training providers across the South West to up-skill and re-train local people. We need to take these positive, working examples as best practice in assessing and understanding our resourcing challenges and use them across other sectors before the skills shortage challenge sets in and impacts future projects.

The full skills report is available to view / download here.

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

Jo Moffatt from Atkins’ Energy business has been recognised in the Power Part Time List 2014 as one of the UK’s top 50 part-time and flexible working executives, one of only two engineers to make the list, alongside senior employees from companies including Sky, the BBC and HSBC.

Here, Dr Martin Grant, chief executive officer of Atkins’ Energy business discusses flexibility and the work-life balance, and why it is important for both employer and employee.

In recent years there has been a wide spread realisation that managing the work-life balance is a critical part of business in the 21st century.

Recognising that peoples’ lives are genuinely more complex and fast paced today than they were 10 years ago has resulted in a need to address how the world of work sits in an employees broader life.

We are extremely proud that Jo has been included in this high profile list of successful professionals who work part time. Jo has been a role model for people across Atkins who want to work flexibly, and as one of the first people in the business to work in a flexible way, she has encouraged and mentored others to look at the options open to them.

Flexible working is not necessarily about working fewer hours but about being supported in managing the various constraints of personal and professional circumstance in a way that is agreeable to all parties.

People should not be prevented from progressing their careers because of other life commitments – a single parent or carer should have the same opportunity to advance as everyone else, but without a degree of flexibility on both sides this can prove difficult. For me, the recognition of Jo and the others on the list is demonstration of the fact that this isn’t just about allowing people to keep working, it can also be about providing a route for individuals to reach the top of their profession whilst working part time for all or some of their careers.

At Atkins, flexibility is not a one size fits all approach, different people will have different requirements throughout their lives and we try really hard to be mindful of this – it’s a powerful tool that can be used to help both individuals and organisations grow and become stronger.

By making work as accessible as possible to as many as possible, businesses are far more likely to attract and retain skilled workers. They are also likely to encourage a more diverse workforce at senior levels – something a large percentage of organisations are currently striving towards.

UK & Europe,