People power

The craik may be all about the newest technology and the tech generation but at the latest BST forum, our group of architects and engineers argued that it is human creativity and ability to communicate with clients and the public that will be the differentiating factor for business.

BST Forum Sept 2015

What will business life be like with the tech generation?

Eduardo Niebles: “Whoever owns the data is going to own the future. Whether it is contractors, architects or engineering consultants, owning the data – on what was built, how it is performing in use for instance - means you can drive knowledge and be the trusted adviser. There are general consulting firms in the market looking to build their market in infrastructure and acquire engineering firms and that is the proof to me that they understand that data is key.”

Roger Ridsdill Smith: “As construction professionals we need to control the data across a wide spectrum of disciplines and through a series of design and construction stages. We work in an industry with a lot of separate consultants and disciplines who all interact for just a short time frame on each project compared to other sectors such as manufacturing. This means the data is dispersed, and that is combined with less investment in data in our industry than in others. Right now, my impression is that contractors are much more engaged than a lot of consultants about having to control data because it is so essential for them with regards to efficiency on site. We have to ask ourselves as consultants if we are as in control of the data as we need to be. At Foster, all disciplines work together in a shared model space, and there is a significant benefit to our coordination as a result.” 

Neil Stirling: “I had personal experience of how advanced contractors are during phase three of Laing O’Rourke’s new headquarters building. That was transformative for us as a business, being able to see how the contractor used data, interpreted it and applied it to projects.”

Is technology driving consolidation and collaboration?

Michael Walters: “The trend would seem to be towards bringing everything together, businesses getting bigger and consolidating so they can offer every service from design, to building, to asset management. But it still seems to us that architects remain a trusted adviser, spending our time building relationships to understand what is required and present a brief that responds. For some bigger projects it might be a good thing for clients to go to the one size fits all, we do everything camp. But if you are not in that space in terms of project size, then that may not be what you need as a client; you would be better off with a smaller firm and a closer relationship.”

Eduardo Niebles: “I’d agree. We see a lot of consolidation in the market but if you are a medium sized firm, there is a lot of business going forward. If you are good and niche, the clients will come to you. Just own that data.”

Are we ready to deliver in a technical world?

Ben Freedman: “If you are all working on one virtual model in the same office, using the same server, then yes. If not, it’s difficult particularly as the models get bigger and bigger. Computers constantly need updating to be fast enough and fibre connections between offices are a restriction too. We’ve been working in a very collaborative way on projects for years so we are quite nimble and agile with regards to being able to talk to one another. But the virtual world of the model is not working yet.”

What is the main risk ahead with technology?

Ben Freedman: “The risk is losing the best people to technology giants and other engineering sectors such as software and app developers. Technology giants want graduates with the same skills as we do. And potentially we’ll lose them to those firms because of the excitement that the virtual design world brings. Our challenge is to ensure that civil and structural engineering design is exciting and attractive.” 

Harbinder Birdi: “Ben’s right. It’s not the software, it’s the people. I go into schools and talk about our work on Crossrail stations because my fear is that in 20 years there will be a serious shortage of architects and engineers that want to be involved in major infrastructure. You have to remember it can cost £100,000 to qualify as an architect but the starting salary is just £28,000. The banking sector and tech companies are industries that pay more are and becoming more attractive. And London’s too expensive for young people to live. We’ve set up a studio in Manchester, in part because we expect a brain drain north. Birmingham and Bristol are likely to find the same effect.”

Michael Walters: “I think it’s running before we can walk. There are so many new ways to do things that you struggle to embed them in the workflow and then the technology changes. We haven’t got one thing sorted before we invest in the next thing. It is very frustrating.” 

Are people with technology skills top of your list to recruit?

Linda Taylor: “Infrastructure employers are going to want to recruit staff who can use data to help them communicate. Our job is taking amazing concepts and translating them into what it actually means for the people who should be benefitting from them. Data captures what people think and gives architects, engineers and clients instant feedback from the public in response to their proposals. Being able to understand how to use technology to enable more people to participate and how you handle that interaction will be very important.” 

Roger Ridsdill Smith: “At Foster, engineers contribute to the design process from the very beginning of the project conception. In order to be able to do this, we look for a high level of technical expertise in the people that join us. We need to be on the forefront of our technology and we need to be able to deliver the designs that we conceive. I am of the view that the profession of engineering needs no embellishment to justify it. we don’t need to be called design engineers, or use another profession in our name - just be an engineer, it’s a difficult job to do well and it’s fascinating.”  

Ben Freedman: “I look for a skill set of analysis and communication, and the ability to be part of a team. We need all of those aspects, people who can talk to clients but people who also want to do design as they can apply technology skills as they develop.”

Neil Stirling: “We are always looking for creative, intelligent, engaging people. And it is critical that they can work in a team. Architectural training doesn’t necessarily lend itself to working as a team however. When you are learning you are expected to work on your own. But when you step into practice, you are immediately part of a team, and that team is part of a bigger team. We want people who can make the transition.”

What is the challenge of technology and the tech generation?

All: Headphones! 

Ben Freedman: “We need people to have interpersonal skills. A challenge we face is that technology may soon become a barrier, where graduates leave university understanding technology but not with the interpersonal skills necessary to build social links.” 

Harbinder Birdi: “I tell all my graduates wearing headphones that 90% of what you learn you hear from what’s going on around you! Take them off!”

Michael Walters: “There is a lot of emphasis on shared space and collaboration. But you also need space to think. The challenge too is to understand what you do with technology, when you do it and how you use it to be more efficient and effective; and not try and apply it in the wrong context.”

Henry Pipe: “You can’t assume that desire to use technology is driven by a desire for efficiency. People are keen to play with 3D printing for instance not because it takes a percentage off the bottom line but because it’s a new tool for creative purposes. This is to be encouraged but it has to be managed.”

How do medium sized businesses handle a future of ever changing technology?

Steve Shepard: “A lot of medium sized businesses take on technology and the associated skills and realise they can’t maintain them. We are seeing more businesses that want to collaborate with technology companies rather than have the skills in house. If you only have a team of a few technology experts, the risk of one leaving is big for an SME. So taking away the risk by working with a technology company can be a benefit for the long term.”

The panel

  • Mike Walters, managing director, AHR
  • Ben Freedman, director, MLM Group
  • Linda Taylor, director, Copper Consultancy
  • Harbinder Birdi, senior partner, Hawkins Brown
  • Suraj Rana, director, IMC Worldwide
  • Henry Pipe, senior partner, Max Fordham
  • Neil Stirling, director, 3D Reid
  • Roger Ridsdill Smith, director, Foster & Partners
  • Eduardo Niebles, managing director, international business, BST Global
  • Steve Shepard, project head, BST Global
  • Antony Oliver, editor, Infrastructure Intelligence
  • Jackie Whitelaw, associate editor, Infrastructure Intelligence
If you would like to contact Jackie Whitelaw about this, or any other story, please email