Engineering during and beyond COVID-19 – lessons from Asia and Middle East

Maria Rampa, Stephane Asselin & Mark Mauerberger | 30 April 2020 | 23:31

Podcast Transcript: Engineering during and beyond COVID-19 – lessons from Asia and Middle East

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

A crisis is generally defined as an extremely difficult or dangerous situation, but a crisis point can also signify a moment when a situation has the opportunity to change – often for the better.

You could say that we are at that crisis point as the world as we have known it is on the precipice of change, due to the current coronavirus COVID-19.

As Asia is somewhat in advance of the rest of the world in the current coronavirus crisis, for this episode, I spoke to Aurecon’s Chief Executive for Asia, Stephane Asselin, for his insights about what has occurred, what is still unfolding, what he believes potentially lies ahead for Asia, and what lessons the rest of the world can learn from their experiences. I also spoke to Aurecon’s Mark Mauerberger, who is an Electrical Team Leader in Dubai, about what it’s like working on a ‘live’ construction project during a period of lockdown.

To start, Stephane gave me an overview of the current situation in the Asia region.

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Stephane Asselin: It really started in Wuhan in early January. In Hong Kong we started to be alerted to that probably mid- January. I think largely it's been very well managed in Hong Kong, largely because of SARS in early 2000 so they've been through that kind of stuff before. A lot are students returning to Hong Kong or Singapore and so we had a bit of a spike in imported cases, but they are very good at tracking and quarantining folks. So, I feel it is quite well managed.

Maria Rampa: So how are people coping in Asia with the remote working? Is it something that they're used to? Or is this something new? How's it actually working effectively?

Stephane Asselin: I don't think it's new, but it's never been as widespread as it is now, and we don't have a choice. So, I think wherever you are, whether it's here or somewhere else in the world, in America, I mean this is what you need to do. We haven't missed a beat, honestly. I mean, I can't say that it's been easy for folks. So not being able to travel has been a challenge. But I think with the technology, so far it's working pretty well.

It's not easy. I think maybe from the Asia lens, if you think of Hong Kong and many places, people do live in very small places in Hong Kong. I mean it's not unusual to live in 400 to 500 square feet or 800 as a family. Schools have been closed in Hong Kong since January. So that's not easy.

Maria Rampa: And can you tell me about some of the major projects currently in progress in Asia and how they've been impacted?

Stephane Asselin: Hong Kong has been impacted in the hospitality side, tourism, restaurants, hotels, very sad situation and the government is providing some stimulus for that to buffer. But in terms of construction sites, it's still open. Everybody wears a mask in Hong Kong. And it's been like that since January, and, actually now the world is coming to it, asking people to go outside with masks.

The only business I think is starting a little bit to be impacted would be advisory - working on transactions for potential acquisitions and because of not being able to travel and visit sites to do the due diligence and usually these are investors or bankers, it's pretty much delayed and we are looking at ways to do that differently.

Maria Rampa: So, with construction sites, even if countries that are in lockdown, are they still operating as normal or have they gone on to reduced operations?

Stephane Asselin: Actually, they haven't. If you go to a construction site in Hong Kong, it's 100% masks and distancing. It's a city of 7 million people and the new cases are not at construction sites. So, they are imported travellers. Singapore just went and closed their Singapore sites. The reason is the cluster of new cases; there's a lot of workers coming across from different parts. So, there were some clusters in the housing facilities, but before it was, again, massive social distancing and so forth. Indonesia has a bit of a slowdown. We still have big projects in Macau that keep going.

Maria Rampa: And what about the economic impact across Asia? Are you seeing that already and are there signs of what's coming next?

Stephane Asselin: I think clearly this will have an impact. I think the tourism and hospitality sector is a large portion of the workforce in any country. I mean, I think in America it's almost 25% of work are in these sectors and probably any countries you look at. If you look at Thailand, a lot of the GDP is supported by tourism. A lot of tourism was from China, across Asia and the world so that's been heavily impacted. I think the government here has a backlog of projects and infrastructure. I used to say Hong Kong will have 30 years of projects they know they want to do and they're ready in the drawer and what they've done is accelerated a lot of that.

It's mostly delays, but there's a lot of stuff coming. Similar in Singapore. Thailand has stimulus as well. The infrastructure side always is an area where government can invest rapidly and deploy a lot of people so I'm not pessimistic at all with this stuff. You can choose to cry, you could just roll with it and go; so I choose the latter.

Maria Rampa: So, in terms of some of the delays, is it weeks, months? What do you think the delays are really?

Stephane Asselin: I think in Hong Kong there's enough work to keep going. I think in Singapore lately there has been a little bit of delay, maybe a month or two. I think some clients are concerned about force majeure to be invoked as soon as contracts gets awarded. So, there's a bit of that, but I think by far and large... the delays we see, I can't say are fully dependent on Covid-19.

Maria Rampa: So usually during a crisis we see a lot of innovation emerge. What are you seeing emerging at the moment in terms of technological innovation or innovation around delivery of projects or ways of working?

Stephane Asselin: Well, I'm amazed every time... I try not to watch the news too much, but every night when I try to watch a little bit, and most of my career was either in San Francisco or Asia and San Francisco is the crazy place for innovation. So, I'm just amazed at all the companies around the world what they're coming up with right now and I'm a firm believer innovation will get us out of it. So, just as a footnote, I think this is quite amazing and we should never forget that. There are people thinking about that every day. I've seen stuff like companies doing wind turbines in 24 hours; refurbishing ventilators at a thousand pieces a day and shipping. I mean you cannot ask a government to do that, but the private sector will get you out of it.

Maria Rampa: Asia is ahead of the rest of the world really in terms of understanding the impacts of Covid-19, so what advice would you give to others about what might be coming next?

Stephane Asselin: We're ahead because we got it on the chin first, right? I think China was very quick to close down Wuhan and Hubei Province and contain it and clearly it was a pretty serious thing. I think originally if you go back to January and I talked to colleagues, they'd say, "Oh yeah, well we don't have any cases here." Nobody worried about it. So, it kind of sneak up from behind and honestly I think it's impacting the rest of the world more than it has impacted here. My advice is if we don't learn from this and take it seriously, the next one, it will be the same. If you take Hong Kong and SARS, this was very serious, a lot of people died, a lot of healthcare workers died. So that's why when you walk in the streets not wearing a mask it is not socially acceptable.

If everybody has a mask you can't spread it and I think the concern was to take it away from healthcare workers, but here we have stockpile. So hopefully the rest of the world will get ready so that we don't have to talk about PPE for healthcare workers; we need to protect our frontline, they're the heroes of that. What looks chaotic now will not be the second time and it probably won't be as bad. There'll be some medication hopefully. There'll be some contact tracing, and there'll be eventually a vaccine.

Maria Rampa: What valuable lessons do you think we've learned from this particular experience and how will they shape the way that we work in the future?

Stephane Asselin: Well, I think that the way of doing business can be turned upside down very quickly. I mean if you just look at air travel, the first reaction before is to go meet the client or to advance a deal or a project it’s - all right - you create a meeting and you go visit the clients. So how much we reduce our carbon footprint with this is quite amazing and we need to question whether we get the same job done with a different behaviour and I think after this, I don't think everybody will work from home. We'll go back to an office setting. I mentioned, if you live in Hong Kong, I don't think you want to be in 500 to 1,000 square feet all day and all night and every day. So, there will be offices, maybe they'll be smaller, maybe they'll be hot desking more, and maybe we'll travel less.

Maria Rampa: What about you personally? What changes have you made during this period that you think you'll keep doing after this crisis is over?

Stephane Asselin: I call my mom a lot more. Actually, I do! I'm from Quebec, so it's quite far from here. My daughters, I have two twin daughters, 21 in September. They're both there. We actually were on personal travel in Berlin early March. Everything was rosy, scheduled a long time ago. So, my wife flies, one of my daughter flies, spring break one week she goes, I fly in, get her, one arrived and everything exploded. But honestly, we were there for a couple of days, people are way too relaxed here and then there were no cases much in Berlin, a few more outside Germany. We just didn't feel comfortable, so we bailed and so I'm much more aware of this.

I think it's brought people a bit closer. I mean, I said I call my mom more. She's quite a bit older and my dad, so we've tried to connect a bit more of that. So, we manage anxiety because we are landlocked a bit right now.

Maria Rampa: Yeah so definitely throughout the crisis we've noticed a lot more focus from people about connecting with family. What about in a business sense? Do you think it's changed the business relationships as well?

Stephane Asselin: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think the first thing you ask when you talk to a client, you ask about them, how they're doing and their wellbeing and you're always curious about what they're implementing in their offices. That's the first point of conversation nowadays is have you implemented split teams or is your office closed? And also to try to understand how this impacts them you want to be there when they need you. They may not need you now. They may be in a downturn, it may be tough, but we're not going anywhere so to be the first people they think of when they need someone, for almost anything by the way, we will try to help.

Maria Rampa: There's nothing like a crisis too to take certain things off the agenda. You know, before Covid-19 we were talking a lot about climate change and sustainability and other issues. Do you think those will come back or what are going to be the focus areas after this pandemic do you think?

Stephane Asselin: Well I'm definitely into climate change. We've hired someone to lead that in the region and the reason is we know Singapore is pledging $100 billion over a hundred years strictly to climate change and that's not stopping. So, I don't think any of these issues will change because some are heavily impacted by it. I mean sea levels are rising and many of these are coastal cities. So no, I think we'll come back to normal pretty quickly when we pass this. It may not be a V-shape rebound, but it could be. As soon as the economy restarts, I think there'll be a lot of spending on infrastructure and things that we put on the shelf that is now time to get resolved because we need to get the economy going. So, we might get a lot of stuff done after this. Just like after World War II, for example.

Maria Rampa: And will there be new areas that we're focusing on more after this crisis that perhaps we weren't focusing on so much before?

Stephane Asselin: By training I'm a computer modeller. I've always done pretty complex modelling. I never stop thinking. I never stop challenging the team. We need to figure out how to service what the client needs and listen to them and that could be very essential things, probably Metro station infrastructure, accelerating things, roads, tunnels, hospitals. It could be special facilities for the next pandemic. It could be how do we remote survey, but none of that is futuristic.

I mean it's all there. It's just using the tools that are there to get things done better. So, I'm pretty focused on executing what we've got and we have in the mirror and if you have the right people, they will figure out how to innovate doing that regular business.

We have an offshore digital centre in Ho Chi Minh City, that will not stop. I see that increasing because if something is locked down, clearly we could get that done in Ho Chi Minh City but already for me, this is business as usual.

Maria Rampa: After this, do you think we're going to be a bit more inward focused and less outward focused and if that's the case, what would be the consequences of that?

Stephane Asselin: A lot of these projects need international expertise, that expertise cannot travel anymore. So, it needs to be provided remotely but you cannot do any of that if you don't have a large locally-based qualified workforce, which we have in places that are not so familiar for foreign companies, like Thailand with 200 people - that's provided us to be able to service clients locally and internationally very well.

Maria Rampa: So, you said overall you're optimistic about the future.

Stephane Asselin: Yeah, no, I mean challenges bring opportunities. I started in a recession, a bad one in Canada in '90, I mean there we had nothing to do. I moved to Jakarta in '97 in the boom years and then they had the Asian crisis. Thailand for five years. Indonesia took almost 10 years to come back. Then we had SARS, I was not here, but I remember we couldn't come here and these folks here, they suffered. This was the worst possible nightmare because it was killing a lot more people than Covid.

Then at the dot com bust I didn't mention in 2000 I was living in San Francisco. We had the GFC, the mining crisis, I mean there's been a few things and the one thing I'm sure this will pass, is guaranteed. Now, not everybody will survive this in the same shape or form, but they'll come back.

Never miss a good crisis to move ahead!

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Maria Rampa: The Middle East is another region which has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, and, like Asia, is continuing to deliver major projects during this time, utilising new ways of working. I spoke to Mark Mauerberger, who is Aurecon’s Electrical Team Leader in Dubai, currently working on the Dubai Conference and Exhibition Centre, which is the central building for Expo 2020. The project is moving ahead with Aurecon in the role of Site Supervisor, having completed the full engineering design. I spoke to Mark about some of the challenges of delivering a major construction project during a time of total lockdown in the United Arab Emirates.

Mark, tell me a bit about the unique site supervision role that engineers play in Dubai.

Mark Mauerberger: Well, I think site supervision in the UAE is quite different to other countries, as it’s much more onerous in terms of the dedicated manpower required during the life cycle of a construction project. Construction projects in the UAE have a dedicated resource, which could be a mixture of project managers, architects, cost consultants, document controllers, electrical mechanical engineers and inspectors all based on a construction site and working alongside the client team, generally in the same site office for the duration of that project.

Maria Rampa: How has that site supervision role had to change in the current climate?

Mark Mauerberger: Yeah, so it has been very challenging for sure, as during lockdown, our design offices have been closed and everyone from the office has had to work from home. However, in construction, the building work has to carry on unless directed by the government and your client. So, shift working was introduced on site to keep these numbers to a minimum. Essentially, we've got two equivalent teams, and 50% will work from home one day and the other 50% work from the site office. The aim is this keeps the capacity down on site and enables everyone to apply social distancing. Also in the UAE we are currently in a 24 hour lockdown except for the essential services such as construction. So, employees travelling to site must carry a permit obtained through Dubai municipality.

Maria Rampa: So, what are some of the other challenges that you're facing, say, with remote working?

Mark Mauerberger: I think the main challenge for me is not being able to just get up and go speak to someone face-to-face, especially for site roles when there are issues to be resolved requiring rapid responses to keep the site moving forward. Also, it's a lot harder to understand pressures for my team members. Are they overworked? Are they working too many hours? Obviously, this is a lot harder to assess when you aren't sitting with them.

Maria Rampa: And so what innovative solutions have you and the project team come up with to deal with some of these challenges?

Mark Mauerberger: Well, we have regular weekly meetings with the team using Microsoft Teams. We also have a WhatsApp group, which has been to keep everyone up to speed with the latest developments on sites, as the situation is literally changing from week to week.

Maria Rampa: So, what lessons do you think you've learned as well as your team through this time of new ways of working that maybe you can take into the future?

Mark Mauerberger: So far, I think that flexible working does work and I think we can still make progress on projects even though we are not face-to-face all the time.

I am working from home. I am also married and I live with my wife and my 10 month old daughter. However, they are downstairs and I don't really get disrupted by them. But positive for me has been that I get to spend quality time with my family, having breakfast, lunch and dinners and even my coffee breaks with them, which is great.

Maria Rampa: How do you feel about the future? Are you feeling fearful or optimistic?

Mark Mauerberger: I'm feeling quite optimistic about it because I think being forced to work from home, use digital tools and technologies to assist us working from home basically proves that it can be done. So, I think there's got to be a lot of changes in the future in terms of how we work and where we work from.

Maria Rampa: And do you think that does apply to delivering projects on site? Because that's always been the challenge, hasn't it? That when you're delivering a project onsite, you do need to be there usually. But obviously now it's been shown that maybe you don't need to be there all the time. Do you think that going forward that will change the way that projects are delivered?

Mark Mauerberger: I think in the Middle East it might be challenging just because the way you're working on construction sites here is very much hands-on. However, from a design office point of view and maybe designers that are based on construction sites can probably actually carry that same work either in a design office or at home. Yes, you always need your inspectors on sites, but inspectors come in later stages of a project. For mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineers, you need your structure up when you're first fixed to begin before you actually can start inspecting. But all that front-end work of reviewing submittals and shop drawings, there's no reason why you can't do that from your desk at home or your desk in your office.

Maria Rampa: And what about digital innovations or technologies like robotics to construct on site? Do you think that this experience might open the door to more of that sort of approach?

Mark Mauerberger: Yes, definitely. And I think in the Middle East we are already seeing it. A lot of contractors are out there that are already using design to fabricate methods, and you will definitely see more of that in the future.

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Maria Rampa: Innovation is definitely an opportunity in this current crisis and many individuals and organisations across the world are demonstrating how they are embracing the crisis to create a positive change. Let us know if you enjoyed this special COVID-19 episode by rating and reviewing it on Spotify or Apple. While you’re there be sure to subscribe and follow future episodes of Engineering Reimagined. Until next time – thanks for listening.

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Show notes

A crisis is generally defined as an extremely difficult or dangerous situation, but a crisis point can also signify a moment when a situation has the opportunity to change – often for the better.  

This week the spotlight is on how the Asia and Middle East regions are dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 following last week’s conversation in which we learned how Australia and New Zealand’s engineering industry are coping with the pandemic.

As Asia is somewhat advanced compared to the rest of the world in dealing with the coronavirus crisis, we spoke to Aurecon’s Chief Executive for Asia, Stephane Asselin, for his insights about what has occurred, what is still unfolding, what he believes potentially lies ahead for Asia, and what lessons the rest of the world can learn from their experiences.

We also spoke to Aurecon’s Mark Mauerberger, a Team Leader in Dubai, about how to deliver a major construction project – the Dubai Conference and Exhibition Centre building for Expo 2020 Dubai – during a time of total lockdown in the United Arab Emirates.   

Meet our guests

Learn more about Stephane Asselin and Mark Mauerberger.
Stephane Asselin - Chief Executive, Asia

Stephane Asselin

Chief Executive, Asia

Stephane is Aurecon's Asia Chief Executive and a member of the Global Aurecon Executive Committee. He has been involved in several projects in the infrastructure, marine, water, energy and environmental sectors both domestically and internationally.

Mark Mauerberger - Associate

Mark Mauerberger

Associate and Electrical Team Leader, Dubai

Mark is a Chartered Electrical Engineer with over 12 years of experience in Building Services. He has worked on several industries, including property and building consulting, management, engineering, and construction.

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