Engineering during and beyond COVID-19 – an ANZ perspective

Maria Rampa, Louise Adams & Camilla Gibbons | 22 April 2020 | 25:20

Podcast Transcript: Engineering during and beyond COVID-19 – an ANZ perspective

Maria Rampa: Hello and welcome to a special COVID-19 episode of Engineering Reimagined. I’m Maria Rampa.

As Charles Dickens lamented in The Tale of Two Cities – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” 

No doubt many of us would agree that we are currently in such an uncertain and ambiguous time – a period of despair but also an opportunity for change, innovation and renewal.  

While we are still reeling from the health impacts of this pandemic, our working and personal lives have changed, perhaps forever, and we are left wondering what the fallout will be in the medium to long-term. 

While many countries across the world are suffering catastrophic consequences, Australia and New Zealand seem to be coping relatively well with the crisis.

Why is that?

To find out, I spoke to Aurecon’s Louise Adams who is the Chief Executive of Australia and New Zealand, responsible for leading approximately 4,000 people working with clients across multiple industries in both locations, and Camilla Gibbons who leads Aurecon’s Spatial Team in New Zealand and has some insights into how lessons learned from the Christchurch earthquake may be helping to inform responses to the current crisis.

To start, Louise gave me an overview of the current situation in the ANZ region.

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Louise Adams: I think both the Australian and New Zealand governments have responded to COVID 19 in similar ways to what we've seen in many governments around the world. Over in New Zealand, they will get to a little bit more stimulus in the economy and people moving out and about, but in that cautious way that you would expect, still trying to keep a firm grasp on what happens with their infection rates and the like, and keeping control of continuing to see the flattening in that curve.

And likewise, across Australia, we really have seen quite unprecedented levels of collaboration between the federal government and the state governments to try and drive. The flattening of the curve here. I think both Australia and New Zealand, deep in our culture, we have a sense of let's all dig in and all come together and all work really hard for an outcome.

I think we benefit geographically and physically from being islands. That has given us a greater ability to control our borders quicker and it will in the future give us a greater ability to come out of this. We have the benefit of having had very strong economies going into this crisis. And so as in terms of a foundation that you want to have in place when you hit a big crisis, a major crisis like this, which does take a huge toll on the economy, then you want to be starting at least from a strong foundation.

Maria Rampa: How has the engineering design and advisory industry changed as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak here and what challenges are being faced as a result of that?

Louise Adams: We've certainly seen a softening in some of the private industry, investment and construction. But the governments both across Australia and New Zealand have been very categoric in their desire to keep the construction industry ticking along to keep essential work that's being done in that space moving forward. How do we go about keeping this incredibly essential work ticking over, but how do we do it in a COVID world? How do we ensure that we're doing it in a very healthy and safe manner and protecting the people that are involved in the industry, particularly those that have to go to sites and have to do the construction activity?

So the challenges that we've been facing is working with our clients around the reality of that and what that might mean for them. And then also working with our own workforce. How do we take a workforce that traditionally has been predominantly office-based or site-based and get into the rigour and into the daily grind of working from home and working remotely?

Maria Rampa: So some innovations have really had to come to the fore in this new world of working. What have you or your teams or clients employed to ensure that projects have been able to keep moving forward?

Louise Adams: Our team in Adelaide had this great little idea where they would normally have a whole cohort of people, maybe a dozen people that would go to site together to do a monthly site inspection and they decided to do that using digital tools and in a virtual manner. So they had a whole cohort and in fact it was much broader than the 12 people that would normally go, who sat on a Teams meeting and they had one or two people that physically went to the site.

And they were doing it all over using an iPad and an iPhone to say, "Well, okay, open up that box and have a look in there and go over here and measure that for me and take a look at that and tell me what you're seeing there." So we're seeing little innovations like that, which I think will stay with us in terms of building efficiency and productivity into the industry well beyond the COVID-19 challenge that is causing us to come up with these innovations.

Maria Rampa: It's great to see those innovations actually. And as you say, it'd be great to see them continue after this crisis. And beyond that, what role do you think that engineering design and advisory organisations will play in the recovery?

Louise Adams: I think we've got an immense role to play. We're working with clients around saying, "Well, what are the assets that exist that perhaps are being underutilised through this crisis and how might we temporarily help support the conversion of those to help us front up this challenge?" Whether it is to look at how do we put in place temporary hospitals that maybe have respiratory facilities so that we can support the peak demand on hospital beds that we're starting to see and that are being predicted in some of the modelling that the Australian government has released? But also how can we support where we have travellers returning from overseas and we know that they need to go into isolation? What assets might be out there that are being underutilised that we can work with clients to unlock those assets and make them usable during this crisis?

Education is a really interesting one. The challenge that our universities are currently facing with all of the international students that they usually rely heavily on not able to travel into Australia. And then even the challenge that we're seeing play out in our primary and secondary schools around having to run those schools virtually. There's two sides of that opportunity space. The opportunity to help those clients work through what does a virtual learning environment look like in the here and now, but also how can we take the innovations and the work that we're doing to create those virtual environments and make them add value and add efficiencies into how we run our education system into the future?

But then also on the flip side of that, what can we do with the assets? So while those schools are empty, how do we get all that work done and again in a safe COVID way? I think other sectors that we're working with a lot are our utilities clients, how do we help them continue to run and manage their utility assets, and provide the service to the communities that they expect to receive? How do we keep that going through the crisis? And then also how do we ensure that we're maintaining those assets and doing the upgrading works on those assets that we don't just shut down that work, and lose six months of managing those assets and improving those assets?

I think when we come out the other end of the crisis, it's really about the role that we can play in helping government to re-stimulate the economy, helping to get the productivity back up there and rolling out projects both in our communities and our cities, but also definitely into regional parts of Australia.

Maria Rampa: Throughout history, engineers have been at the forefront of some of the greatest inventions. And do you think that this will be no different, that engineers and advisors will have a huge role to play not just in rolling out some new technologies or smart thinking even and talking to clients about what might be possible?

Louise Adams: I think there's a great opportunity for this to be the turning point for the construction industry. It's had a productivity decline over the turn of the century. And I think there's a real challenge on the industry now to start to use this crisis, to use the opportunity in front of us to look at what are the technological advances? What are the efficiency gains? What is the innovation that we can drive into this industry to get us through this crisis that then will add to the productivity and add to the improvement of the industry moving forward? This crisis has forced us to front up to some of those so-called impossibilities and make them possible. So I think it's a wonderful opportunity. And the role that we as engineers and advisors have, it's quite exciting in that we're the ones that are going to help government and help society come up with the solutions and come up with those ideas.

Maria Rampa: That's a great lesson to learn through a crisis. Do you think there are other lessons that we've learned throughout this experience or for you personally that you think will be helpful going forward?

Louise Adams: I think there's lessons to be learned around the complexity that we've built into the supply chain, around that driver for saving every last dollar and what that means for us and what we're having our eyes open to in this crisis. So I think there's a lot of lessons to be learned in how do we make our supply chains smarter, not just cheaper and how do we make them more resilient so that if in the future, if we do face shocks like this, again, global shocks where we see massive closures of borders, et cetera, that we have a little bit more resilience built into our networks to stand up to those shocks.

I think we've seen in the past where we have seen innovations come out of crisis, how do we actually take those innovations and deeply embed them in our BAU moving forward, that we don't just use those innovations to get through the crisis? And then suddenly when we're through the crisis, we all go back to what we were doing in the past and go back and say, "Oh, thankfully we made it through that crisis." But then we forget about all of those gains and efficiencies and things we've learned along the way. So a real challenge for us to embed it and use the lessons that we learn into the future.

There's no doubt plenty that we can learn personally. The view that we get so embedded into what we are comfortable with that we don't challenge ourselves with what we believe is impossible until we're faced with a crisis like this. So I think that one of the big lessons for me personally is that I've just got to continually challenge my norms, challenge my mindset and make sure I'm not just assuming things are impossible because I'm just not familiar with them, that we always continue to seek to do things differently and do things new ways.

I think there is a lesson to be learned here for us, in what is actually fundamentally important to us as a society, as an organisation. And where the emphasis that we put on community and the emphasis that we put on health and wellbeing, I think when we come out of that we should elevate the importance that we put on those things. I hope that we will all be a little bit more grateful for spending time with one another and for having community and put a little bit more effort into building community and building support networks for each other. I've certainly found that within my team I've spent a lot more time reaching out to people to say, "Are you okay? How are you doing? How are you feeling? How's your family? Is everybody healthy?"

Maria Rampa: One of the things, obviously that's happened over this time is a real blending of work and home life and a connection with families, who perhaps haven't been so connected in the past. I know you have a young child at home, you're having to work with your child in the house as many people are. Do you think that's going to have some fundamental change or there's going to be a fundamental shift around the way that people view work and home life and the blending of it?

Louise Adams: I think we'd all agree that whilst we talk about working from home and whilst we talk about flexibility, we still see that people that take that up can often be stigmatised in the workforce. That this idea that presenteeism is the overarching measure of success and input into a business. I think we're really going to see that that's going to start to be broken down. I think we're going to see real progression along the lines of saying, well, actually, value is something that is not innately linked to time and being in an office and sitting at a desk. That you can create value and you can get to an outcome in the circumstances that we find ourselves in, which is where everybody is being forced to work from home. I think that we will still see people tending back towards offices because the whole idea of being forced to work from home, if nothing else has made us very grateful for the time that we have with our peers and the time that we physically have in our offices. So I suspect we're still going to see a gravitas back to that.

I think that's where we've got to be careful because we don't want to end up in a world where all we are doing is working because now we can work from home and we know how to do that. So I think we need to challenge ourselves to learn from this that you can work flexibly and you can work from home and value is about contribution, not about time spent at a desk. And there is nothing like a six-year-old to remind you of when you need to do that because they’d be the first to tell you when they're sick of you working on your computer.

Maria Rampa: Overall, how do you feel about the future? Are you feeling optimistic or fearful?

Louise Adams: Look, I feel quite optimistic about the future and I am an optimistic person at heart. And I could get deeply philosophical about why I feel optimistic. But I think there's an opportunity for the world to almost press a little bit of a reset button as we come out of the back of this crisis. I think it is going to be an incredibly challenging six months for Australia and for New Zealand and for the world. And there are already and there will continue to be people that are deeply personally impacted. They will lose jobs, they will find themselves isolated and we have to, as a society and I think the government is working hard to provide a safety net underneath our society to try as best they can to make sure people don't fall off the radar in this challenging time. We know that we can re-stimulate the economy, we can get these jobs back in, we can pick up the momentum again.

And I think everybody's quite positive that we can achieve that. It's just a matter of when we can achieve that. I do think when we come out the other end of this, we are going to be more grateful for some of the smaller things that perhaps our traditional approach to the world, the very capitalist nature of profit-driven societies have perhaps turned away from and perhaps ignored for a little bit too long. And in that, I see a very positive opportunity for us to reset the way we look at things, reset the way that we run our societies, run our communities, even how we interact with our neighbours and certainly how we run our businesses.

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Maria Rampa: New Zealand is a country that has had its fair share of disasters. In February 2011, Christchurch, the country’s second largest city, was severely damaged by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake that killed 185 people and injured thousands. It occurred only 6 months after a magnitude 7.1 earthquake had hit the city in September 2010 and aftershocks were felt for many months afterwards. It has taken years to rebuild the city, with many works still on-going, potentially for decades. Camilla Gibbons, who is an engineering geologist and Aurecon’s Spatial Team Leader was at the forefront of the disaster recovery operations. She spoke to me about the lessons she learned from that experience that could serve to help us navigate the current crisis.

After the Christchurch earthquakes, you were involved in digital rock mapping using drones to collect data, particularly from remote areas that were difficult to access. Do you think that experience of quickly adapting a fairly new technology to deal with an emergency has translated into the current responses? And if so, what new technologies are emerging now do you think to help with this crisis?

Camilla Gibbons: Yes, after the earthquakes we did start using drones, which we hadn't used before and then developed new systems, new methods, new programmes off the back of that to utilise that data in a different way. Now gathering data remotely is quite common, whether it's from drones, whether it's from laser scans, whether it's whatever methods it may be. And I think it will evolve even more. I mean, we're already hearing apps that are mapping COVID spread in different countries and all the quite clever AI type technology that's now being put to use. So I think it's only going to expand and grow. Quite what direction it grows in, who knows?

Maria Rampa: I know that following the Christchurch disasters, mental health, addiction, suicide and domestic violence services have really been stretched. What was your experience regarding mental health and recovery following the Christchurch earthquakes, and what strategies did you develop which you think could help others following a major crisis such as the one we're currently experiencing?

Camilla Gibbons: Yeah, so during the Christchurch earthquakes, I was quite heavily involved in a lot of the homes affected by rockfall, and there were lots of people fairly badly affected. Now as the engineer looking at the rocks, I was trying to completely separate the emotional side of things from the day to day engineering component, the geology component, and that was the way I coped with it. If I'd started to really think about the impact that each of those families or what they were going through, and when I was looking at the rocks that hit house, it would have just all been too much. So I made a point of separating it. I also made a point of not really looking at the news too much. I mean being aware of what was going on, but just not getting too involved in it all.

And I'm doing the same again with this disaster, just staying abreast of things but just not getting into the nitty gritty detail, because the more you read, the more everybody has a different take on it and it you just go round and round in circles, and it can end up being perhaps not so healthy.

Maria Rampa: Do you think disasters lead to more traumatised populations or do you think people become more resilient and able to cope with future unexpected crises?

Camilla Gibbons: I think it's a bit of a mixture of both. In some situations people become much stronger. Now I know with some of it with the Christchurch earthquake, there were some people that now are not particularly fazed by things, and some others that got very, very anxious, and the more aftershocks that happened, the more problems that happened, the more anxious people became.

Maria Rampa: So based on your personal experience and the crises that you've not only lived through, but you've had to deal with from a professional point of view, are you fearful or optimistic for the future following this current crisis that we're going through?

Camilla Gibbons: I'm very optimistic about it. I believe we've got a pretty nasty hurdle to get over in the short term. But I think in the medium to long term there is huge potential to really leap forward. And I said this comparing the digital innovation that happened after the Christchurch earthquake. We had the earthquake, we had to do something a little bit differently. We had to think outside the box because some of the methods that we were using before just weren't possible. And I think that's the same with this event. We're all being forced to do something a bit differently, only this time it's because we're all working from home. So we've seen that actually projects can be done without face to face contact. We're proving daily at the moment that it doesn't just come to a grinding halt because we're not in the same meeting room together.

So I think this is going to have a huge positive impact on the ability to collaborate remotely, hopefully reduce the amount of flying that's needed, hopefully reduce the amount of travelling around.

Everybody is managing to work from home in different ways and we've got a very flexible policy. I'll start working in the morning and then I'll go for a run the middle of the morning and then I'll come back and I carry on. Now, I would never dreamt of doing that when I was in the office and I don't know why. There's no reason. But I think this is opening up the reality that we can actually integrate life and work a little bit better. We don't have to just go to work solidly eight hours and then everything outside those eight hours is life. We can mix it up and use the technology to be able to do that work from home occasionally, don't take the car on the road occasionally, and reduce the amount of the environmental impact. Because things like climate change and all the big policies around that are not going to change. The targets are still there. Regardless of whether we're in this coronavirus working situation or whether we were working as we were six months ago, those targets have still got to be achieved.

And so I think this is going to really, really push the use of technology and finding better ways of doing things.

Maria Rampa: And so when we look at a community like Christchurch and many others like them around the world that have come through, and probably at the time it seemed like a huge event that was going to be so difficult to come through, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel and everyone carries on. Is there a final message you would like to send to people who are perhaps feeling as though this crisis is never going to end?

Camilla Gibbons: Well, it was quite interesting. We had the whole series of earthquakes, and the third of the big earthquake, which was in June 2011 which was a good six months after the first one, there was a moment where I thought, you know what, I'm not interested in this anymore. This is just getting ridiculous. We're just fighting a losing battle here and we're just going nowhere. But it wasn't fighting a losing battle. We did get there in the end. But yes, at times it did feel like very much an uphill struggle.

But once we started to get the city back together again, once it all started to feel better again, then the speed at which it felt better just increased. So it was just getting over the initial hump to then be able to really see that improvement was going to happen. And so I suppose the key message is to not lose hope. Yes, it will be different when we come out the other side of this. It's bound to be. But I honestly think it's going to be improved opportunities and I think it will be a better place on the back of all this.

It's been quite interesting personally for me because a lot of my friends are doctors, and during the earthquakes they initially had very, very busy work. But as soon as the emergency was over, they went back to their normal working patterns. And I feel like this is their earthquake and I'm the bystander at this time. Only, they don't know what's coming. And so I think the more we can all help them not spread this virus and stay at home and really help everyone to contain it, the better, because they are working their socks off and I think they deserve an award.

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Maria Rampa: I think we all agree – so many essential service workers deserve an award during this crisis, and as our guests have said, we can work together to create a better world! I hope you enjoyed this special COVID-19 episode. We would love your feedback and to find out what else you would be interested in hearing about, so please rate, review, subscribe and follow us on Spotify and Apple, as that helps even more people find out about Engineering Reimagined. Until next time – thanks for listening.

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Show notes

No doubt many of us would agree that we are currently living in very uncertain and ambiguous times – a period of despair but also an opportunity for change, innovation and renewal.  

Interestingly, Australia and New Zealand seem to be coping relatively well with the COVID-19 pandemic. To find out why, in this episode of Engineering Reimagined we chat with Louise Adams, Aurecon’s Chief Executive of Australia and New Zealand and Camilla Gibbons, engineering geologist and Aurecon’s Spatial Team Leader.

Louise discusses COVID-19’s impact on the engineering sector across both countries and the opportunities available to industry post-crisis. Camilla also shares her insights on how lessons learned from the Christchurch earthquake could be helping to inform New Zealanders’ responses to the current crisis. 

Next week, make sure to tune in as we cover perspectives from Asia and the Middle East around COVID-19.

Meet our guests

Learn more about Louise Adams and Camilla Gibbons.
Louise Adams - Chief Executive – Australia & New Zealand

Louise Adams

Chief Executive, Australia & New Zealand

Louise Adams is responsible for leading approximately 4000 people, together with the financial and operational performance to meet Aurecon’s strategic and operational business goals across both locations. She has over 19 years of experience as a Chartered Civil Engineer.

Camilla Gibbons - Associate, Infrastructure

Camilla Gibbons

Engineering Geologist and Spatial Team Leader

Camilla is a Chartered Geologist with experience in geotechnical engineering. She has led major geotechnical ground for tunnels, metros, large industrial infrastructure and offshore structures in addition to smaller commercial and residential investigations, slope stability investigations and monitoring schemes.

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