Bridging the gap between infrastructure and digital

Mott MacDonald’s new digital business MMDV creates an ‘intersection of needs and aims to nurture and develop digital innovation in infrastructure. Darren Russell reports.

For as long as I can remember I wanted to be an engineer. I’ve no idea where the thought came from as we had no engineers in the family, but I knew I wanted to be one. And I was lucky enough to go on to qualify as a civil engineer and to join Mott MacDonald which is involved in some of the biggest engineering and development projects in the world.

My other passion is technology. I remember opening the box of my Sinclair Spectrum as a 17-year-old and thinking it was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen. I couldn’t wait to start playing with it. That was back in the early 1980s. 

Throughout my career I’ve worked at the intersection of engineering and technology, sometimes falling more on one side or the other. During this time, technology has moved on light years, while civil engineering has changed little in comparison. Across the industry right now there’s a clear gap between digital and engineering expertise. This knowledge gap is a problem for engineers. It leaves us vulnerable to disruption from newcomers such as technology giants and start-ups which offer the potential of faster, more accurate decision making. 

As an industry, we need to evolve rapidly. Our clients need us to move forward. Interestingly, so do our disruptors. Why? Because throwing smart technology at infrastructure won’t provide a miracle cure. The right relationships and deep technical knowledge are still critical if you want new technology to reach its maximum value in the infrastructure space. 

It’s time to nurture our disruptors 

We have launched Mott MacDonald Digital Ventures (MMDV) to bridge this gap. Our new digital business will drive digital innovation in the construction industry in two key ways. First, MMDV will act as a venturing business, providing the crucial funding to take exciting digital ideas to market. Second, and perhaps more important, is the digital ecosystem we will help to create, connecting digital innovation to existing challenges in the infrastructure industry. 

As we talk to technology providers, start-ups, software developers, entrepreneurs and others from outside the traditional construction industry, as well as our own colleagues, we are looking for those digital innovations that – when combined with our vast infrastructure domain expertise – will boost efficiency in our industry, creating value for our clients and wider society. Yes, the digital revolution is disrupting our industry, but rather than ignore the challenge we aim to nurture, develop and steer this disruption instead.

MMDV is a strategic decision. Productivity in our industry must increase to meet the growing pressures on our clients, whether it’s climate change, urbanisation or geopolitics. As an industry leader, our duty is to move early. We’re not doing digital for its own sake, but because it’s now one of the most effective enablers we have.

Benefits for all

Drawing on our domain expertise and partnering approach, MMDV will create a focal point for digital transformation in the infrastructure industry. Rather than cross and collide, the respective needs of asset owners, engineers, technology providers and start-ups can now meet at an intersection. 

The tech houses and start-ups will gain access to a new sector that offers vast potential for growth and will enjoy access to better data sets for building their apps and innovative services. They also gain the support and gravitas of partnering with a firm that is well used to working with major asset owners and regulators and has a deep understanding of the connection between infrastructure and its purpose. The ultimate benefit will be through enhanced economic, social and environmental outcomes.

On a personal level, I hope this will provide new opportunities for colleagues too. My own career has combined engineering and technology to deliver better outcomes, so I know this combination works. Digital awareness will be expected of the engineers of tomorrow, and MMDV will help all our people and newcomers move forward quickly in this space.

I can’t wait to see what happens when civil engineering really gets to grips with technology. I hope (and expect) that the exponential change I’ve seen from the time of my beloved 1980s Sinclair Spectrum to the technology of today will be matched by an equally remarkable and exciting transformation in engineering. Graduates joining the industry today can expect to see vast changes in the way they solve society’s challenges over the course of their careers. And I look forward to working with many of them at the growing intersection of engineering and technology.  

Darren Russell is chief digital officer at Mott MacDonald.