"We can move quicker than we think in the new normal"

02 Mar 2021

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The second event in the FIDIC Covid-19 Webinar Series 2021 took place on 2 March 2021 with an event looking at how the pandemic will influence and create a ‘new normal’ for the construction and infrastructure industry, writes FIDIC communications advisor Andy Walker.

The webinar “Working together in the new normal” was attended by more than 500 people and was moderated by FIDIC chief executive Nelson Ogunshakin. The speakers included Mike Haigh, executive chair of Mott MacDonald in the UK, Stephen Brobst, chief technology officer at Teradata Corporation in the US, Robin Greenleaf, CEO of Architectural Engineers in the US, Mark Coates, strategic industry engagements director at Bentley Systems in the UK, Pierre Verzat, CEO at SYSTRA in France and Alan McNamara, founder of iContract Technologies in Australia. They were joined at the event by FIDIC president Bill Howard.

Mike Haigh, executive chair of Mott MacDonald in the UK addressed the question of the future structure of the industry and how the consultancy and engineering sector was adapting to the new normal. “I believe that we are fundamentally a team-based industry,” said Haigh who thought that there would be a return to offices but that there would be more remote working and working from home. “People need to be near to their colleagues from a wellbeing perspective, especially emerging professionals,” he said. Haigh said that the pandemic had shown how the pace of change had increased and this was encouraging for the future. He also questioned whether the construction industry had the right structure to deliver for the future, especially on issues like net zero. “We are still too much operating in silos,” said Haigh and that needed to change.

Haigh thought that the global megatrends would be accelerated by the pandemic and that many countries were paying closer attention to the environment, net zero and social infrastructure. This meant that the industry needed to move much more quickly and work smarter to help the politicians deliver on their aims. Reflecting on Mott Macdonald’s commercial model of being an employee-owned firm, Haigh thought that this had made it easier to transition to a new normal. ‘In an employee-owned organisation, we have a great deal of consistency of direction,” he said. “If we are really going to be able to use technology to drive the improvements we need, we have to break down the transactional barriers in the industry,” said Haigh who thought that removing those barriers could be made easier by employees having more of a say.

Reflecting on the way that businesses had been disrupted by the pandemic, Stephen Brobst, chief technology officer at Teradata Corporation in the US, said that there would never be a return to ‘normal’. “Disruptions will continue to happen, but this means that there is opportunity to be had,” he said. “You can’t make a plan for the unplannable – intelligence is the ability to react to change,” said Brobst, quoting Steven Hawking. It was necessary to look at organisations that had reacted to change and how fast they had done that, he said. Asked about the effects of the pandemic on technology, Brobst said: “This pandemic has caused a digital transformation stress test. People had no choice and they had to make the investment and make the change,” he said. The use of machine learning and AI would increase in future and data would become ever more critical across all industries, he said.

Pierre Verzat, CEO at SYSTRA in France, said that Covid had forced firms to connect better and this had helped integrate operations across disciplines within the industry. This was clearly a positive but he agreed with Mike Haigh that ideally, people needed to be working closer together in person for better efficiency. Reflecting on longer-term trends in the area of transport, Verzat thought that there would be a trend towards people living in smaller cities for quality-of-life reasons and that this would create opportunities for the industry. The industry has been forced to work differently through the Covid crisis and this would change companies for the long term, he said.

Robin Greenleaf, CEO of Architectural Engineers in Boston, USA, said that she thought that Covid had already brought change to the industry and this would continue going forward. “It really doesn’t matter now where the design is being done and there is a huge opportunity for firms to expand their work if clients realise that distance is no longer an object,” she said. “Learning to adapt to all the digital technology with our staff has been challenging and we have learned a lot of lessons along the way,” said Greenleaf. Asked whether the industry was doing enough to educate clients and investors on how best to leverage on the opportunities presented by the new normal working environment, she highlighted some of the strategic relationships that had been developed with clients around technology and working methods that had greatly benefited industry working and enhanced relationships with clients.

Mark Coates, strategic industry engagements director at Bentley Systems in the UK, said that the pandemic had shown that the three stages of delivering a project - design, delivery and maintenance – were heavily dependent on the use of effective technology but that this needed to be an enabler. “It’s important not to have data siloed – this needs to be accessed more easily and by all team members on a project,” said Coates, who also highlighted the increasing role of digital twin technology which was “giving power back to clients” and being adopted and accepted by clients and the wider industry. He said that Covid had brought to the fore the use of this technology which he thought would usher in a technology revolution in the construction industry.

Alan McNamara, founder of iContract Technologies in Australia, spoke about his FIDIC Board-endorsed PHD programme on digital contracts he was studying at New South Wales University in Sydney, Australia. “The heart of the construction project remains the construction contract and an iContract could alleviate the need for onerous contract tasks and improve the relationships between parties,” he said. McNamara thought that given the space of change in the digital arena as a result of the pandemic, there may be a case for fully autonomised contracts to be used even earlier by the industry than originally thought. People are being forced to collaborate more, he said, and that had to be a good thing for the whole industry.

Summing up the webinar, the panellists reflected on their key lessons from the pandemic that they will apply in the future. In no particular order, these were - embrace chaos, destroy the old and embrace the new, listen more and be as flexible as possible, pivot and don’t look back unless you have to, embrace the ability to be agile and not to fear failure and be ready for what is coming because “we can move quicker than we think”.

Closing the webinar, FIDIC president Bill Howard said that the industry needs to keep the doors open that had been opened up during the pandemic and keep the dialogue flowing because out of adversity opportunity had opened up and it was crucial to embrace this going forward.

The next FIDIC webinar is Combating corruption in the engineering and construction sector which takes place on Tuesday 23 March 2021 at 12 noon CET. Please register your place as soon as possible as another large turnout is expected for this event.

Click here to book your free place at the FIDIC webinar, “Combating corruption in the engineering and construction sector”.  

Click below to view the recording of the webinar, Working together in the new normal.

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