The evolution of engineering is long overdue. If the architects, engineers and builders of the Italian Renaissance could time travel, they would recognise a lot of what engineers do today. Compared to other industries, engineering had remained much the same for decades. Like other professional services firms, Aurecon had been conducting business as usual for many years but was at serious risk of sleepwalking into irrelevance by ignoring the disruptive giant of 'digital'.
The past handful of years has seen radical changes. As the fourth industrial revolution bears down like a freight train, Aurecon has led a charge in its industry by transforming itself. Much noise has been made heralding Aurecon's progress, including a slew of heady award wins and internal fist-pumping from Africa to Asia, from the Middle East to ANZ. Just as innovators such as the Ford Motor Company, Apple and Amazon changed the industries around them by forging their own processes, Aurecon is the organisation seeking to reimagine engineering's future by transforming its own internal culture from deep technocrats to creative problem finders.
Yet with every company claiming transformation these days, the term is overused and often meaningless. Just how much truth is there in Aurecon's bold statement of change? How much impact is the engineering multinational making on industry and what, if any, will its legacy be?
Business journalist Mark Abernethy headed inside the company of 7500 people across 64 offices in 24 countries to find out the real story by talking to Aurecon staff at the coalface to see if there was any truth to its 'future ready' claim or was it all a carefully planned marketing campaign.
Aurecon operates in an industry where innovation counts: projects are designed to stand for a century and more; and highly-efficient, well-designed infrastructure benefits entire communities resulting in positive impacts in the billions.
According to global CEO, Giam Swiegers, Aurecon can't not be an innovator, given the size of the projects and the stakes. Yet when he joined the company in 2015 he confronted a conundrum: the firm had a big reputation in engineering but it had not been thriving financially. Fresh from a 12-year term as the chief executive of Deloitte Australia, Swiegers realised the same spirit of disruption he'd brought to the accounting giant might work at Aurecon.
Previously, the company's main asset — 7,500 very smart people — was 'locked-up' in teams based on geography or practice. Aurecon have now embraced multidisciplinary teams comprising different genders, cultures, races and expertise. The magic happens when different disciplines intersect and collaborate, yet historically engineers have not worked this way.
The engineering world was changing in 2015. Projects were becoming more complex; asset-owners needed 'social licence' and technology was fundamentally altering design and engineering. Engineering companies had to define the future, not just respond to it and Aurecon had to lead in order to be the disruptor, not the disrupted. To do this, the company would have to build a culture of collaboration and innovation, commit to leadership development, and significantly invest in digital capability.
One example of how teams now share, showcase and workshop ideas can be seen in Aurecon's Sydney office in the D-Lab, an open-plan digital design studio covering most of the floor space.
The D-Lab contains screens, design tables and is punctuated by roll-away white boards covered in notes and diagrams. The power of the D-Lab lies in what you can't see: every Aurecon design, drawing or model is available from D-Lab's cloud-servers, and easily searchable through simple-word references, enabling speedy and easy sharing with teams across geographies.
Located nearby is an exercise bike and a large screen, part of the in-house 3D digital rendering and visualisation suite of services from the recently acquired Unsigned Studio, procured specifically to help Aurecon illustrate concepts in a digitally engaging way. This is a world away from what the Aurecon working environment looked like only three years ago where a deep dive was something done at a swimming pool and not with clients or where post it notes were a rarely used office accessory, and not a thinking tool.
Laura Stewart — Design to Innovate partner at Aurecon, Sydney — has been using the suite to understand the end-user needs of the Sydenham Station redevelopment as part of the Sydney Metro Rail project. "We are able to have users use VR goggles and walk or ride through the design, so we know if things like way-finding signage is working and how they'll actually use the station."
Stewart leads the customer-centred design phase of Aurecon projects in a process called human-centred design, which includes a Design Criteria Canvas filled with colour-coded post-it notes, maps and drawings, photographs of travellers, videos of commuter behaviour and route maps of commuter trails. "We develop personas based on different types of station-user," says Stewart. "We are looking at age, needs, reasons to travel and disabilities."
A swathe of internal innovations arose out of this transformation of mindset that cut across hiring, professional development, office layout, teaming and client engagement. The internal innovation system at Aurecon operates organically: so the ‘Design Crit' peer-review sessions have started at the Sydney office, and it will become a global policy if successful.
Another example is Aurecon's in-house developed project collaboration system, GeoDocs. A cloud-based platform, GeoDocs builds on top of the Microsoft O365 suite of tools to provide integrated management, collaboration, geospatial visualisation and dashboard reporting across complex projects. GeoDocs has been developed within Aurecon since 2012, and has been supporting many major infrastructure projects throughout ANZ (Sydney Metro, Auckland CRL, WestConnex New M5).
More recently, GeoDocs has also been implemented as a digital platform to manage large programmes of work, providing a consistent and repeatable framework to concurrently deliver many projects. Given its proven success, the platform is now being trialled by one of New Zealand's largest District Health Boards.
Auckland-based Technical Director – Built Environment Mike Baverstock says the Auckland District Health Board (ADHB) has recently embarked on a Facilities Infrastructure Remediation Programme (FIRP) costing NZ$1 billion over the next decade. His team thought GeoDocs would be a great project management, reporting and collaboration tool to assist the ADHB in managing the hundreds of projects that will be involved across the FIRP's lifecycle.
"The FIRP involves a very complex range of interdependent projects that require major upgrades to critical infrastructure across ADHB's two main hospital campuses in Auckland. Stakeholders wanted immediate access to both project and programme level status reporting. They rejected other traditional systems (such as Aconex), and were really excited about being fully involved in the journey to develop a system tailored to their specific requirements".
GeoDocs gives stakeholders clear oversight of the real-time ‘dashboard' information they need across key metrics such as risk, financial, OHS and project milestones. The platform is being developed in a collaborative effort between Aurecon and ADHB to design and automate digital processes for document approvals, project management and formal reporting. What makes GeoDocs unique, aside from its user-centred design, is the ability to automatically reference and display spatial information in 3D, within one single interface. In the future, this will provide the foundation for spatial data capture, BIM modelling and, eventually, asset management within the single integrated system as the many FIRP projects move throughout their life cycles.
Dr Kayvani, who is also the founding Dean of Aurecon's three year intensive upskilling programme named the Design Academy says: "If you go to the most experienced team to design a shopping centre, in some firms you'd have a non-diverse predominately male group designing it. That might be okay, but it's predominantly young people, women and families who use these centres. To get the best results you need a diversity of mindset, skillset and heartset — not just the approach you used last year."
Aurecon is making an art of its internal knowledge base. For instance, Aurecon's innovation teams, called the "i40+" (which is more like 300 people rather than forty), saw creative value in blending architectural and visual art approaches to design: the power of narrative, storytelling and imagination.
Additionally, concepts like ‘finding inspiration' and ‘learning from failure' were introduced to Aurecon's most senior technical engineers in a three year intensive upskilling programme called the Aurecon Design Academy to encourage this cohort to get back in touch with the great engineers of a century ago like Gustav Eiffel and Isambard Brunel.
An enthusiastic alumni of the Design Academy is Assawin Wanitkorkul — a senior engineer in Aurecon's Bangkok office. "We're learning storytelling skills, design-thinking philosophy, the power of collaboration and the benefits of multidisciplinary teams and diversity," says Wanitkorkul.
Wanitkorkul credits the Design Academy with giving him a new way of seeing his profession, saying it has given Aurecon a reputation of not just solving difficult problems, but doing so with elegance and creativity. He says eminent Aurecon projects in Bangkok — such as the Soontareeya project, and the tallest building in Thailand, the MahaNakhon Tower — have specifically benefited from the company's design-thinking approach. These projects are being designed by the most renowned architects in the world and we needed a way to learn their language, the language of design, rather than them learning ours.
"Clients know with us they get something very different. We collaborate well, we're good at using all our internal expertise and we always focus on what the end user needs. It's opened up a new view that I take into all of my projects.
The ideas have come quickly, and some of them — such as machine learning that uses inputs from drone mapping or aerial imagery in particular — are now core offerings to clients. Former academic Dr Slaven Marusic is driving industry-leading work at Aurecon, including a machine learning pilot on a data centre that has estimated double-digit future savings of mechanical plant energy consumption.
Another example where Aurecon is making significant inroads is transforming physical assets into digital estate portfolios for clients. This involves developing a digital ecosystem that utilises data extracted from existing assets to help clients respond more rapidly to changing conditions and improve asset performance.
This technology is benefiting our clients with vast and complex asset portfolios. Matt Aberline and Ashleigh Hoffman are leading the charge. Taking a pragmatic approach to find the perfect balance between practice and theory, they enjoy the challenge of understanding what questions an asset owner wants answers to, then developing a system that will inform these answers. "The advantage for the client is the ability to aggregate all the assets in one place and one view," says Hoffman.
In South Africa, Karen Healy and Wim van Schalkwyk are working on a project with a famous conservationist to restore and transform an iconic piece of land next to the Kruger National Park through the economy of wildlife.
"It's a sensitive project," says van Schalkwyk. "The land was transferred to local communities through a land claim process but, due to unintended consequences, it fell into disrepair and currently yields very little value."
He says the project began with design research of the stakeholders that would be impacted by the development — tourists, staff, landowners, service providers, and neighbours. A number of intensive workshops ensured the professional team and other stakeholders collaboratively identified opportunities for innovation. The added diversity during these sessions produced a richness of perspectives and ideas that all contributed to the inspiring results.
The facility designs were turned into ‘through their eyes' stories – digitally-rendered imagery accompanied with provocative auditory stories of how the stakeholder personas would interact and experience the development — a powerful way to elicit feedback and to refine ideas.
"Our new design tools help us to stay focused on who we're designing for, creating better collaboration and engagement throughout the design process. It leads to results that inspire!"
As declared by Swiegers: "When you look at the challenges and opportunities facing this industry, it seems to me that you can survive or you can thrive. You have to make a choice."
It seems that Aurecon has truly made that choice, culminating in receiving prestigious listings in LinkedIn's Top Companies 2018 (top 25 ranking), the Australian Financial Review 50 Most Innovative Companies, and Consult Australia Large Firm of the Year 2017, amongst others. It's clear from the research undertaken for this story that Aurecon is firmly tearing up the well-worn path for engineers and has shaped the company to be ready for the future. While many companies are claiming to disrupt, few are doing so effectively and with the ability for long-term change.
Whilst the future is always something of a mystery and ‘innovation' is generally a word created by marketing departments in their overly ambitious glossy brochures, the evidence shows that Aurecon is actually a company that is redesigning itself from the inside to adapt to change. Aurecon's is an improbable story of an accountant leading a global company of deep technocrats on a journey of transformation from brown cardigans to mohawks. What is intriguing is what this business will be capable of in the next few years.
Changing the way an industry looks at and values the engineering and advisory professions is not off the cards if these people continue on the trajectory they now so firmly embrace. While many companies are clamouring to become future ready, Aurecon has sprinted so far ahead it's a safe call to flip the label completely and agree that Aurecon are indeed ‘ready future'.
Swiegers says the future of firms such as Aurecon will depend on becoming ‘talent-management' companies. "The question isn't can I hire smart, educated, motivated people? The question is, how do I get them to go where they never thought they could go? The best leaders of the future will know how to manage talent, to ensure disruption continues."