Future skills, digital engineering and a green recovery

John Hilton, Kylie Cochrane, Harriet Floyd, Louise Adams, Tim Mumford, Felicity Furey, Lillian Patterson & Trish White | 02 December 2020 | 19:45

Podcast Transcript: Future skills, digital engineering and a green recovery

Maria Rampa: Hello, I’m Maria Rampa. It’s the phrase everybody is sick of hearing but 2020 has certainly been a year of unprecedented events. Everyone – at home and work – has had to change the way we do things, and it’s been no different at Engineering Reimagined.

When the pandemic hit in March, we had to forgo the luxury of a ready pipeline of episodes and in-studio interviews and quickly adapt to create new, fresh, relevant content, using home-based remote podcasting recording equipment, transporting it across the country, to our interviewees’ homes, to keep delivering and sharing quality, pandemic-appropriate content. We hope you have enjoyed this season and learned something new – because we certainly have learned to be agile and adapt to our changing world.

In today’s episode, we wrap up season two with highlights from some of our most popular interviews. What did they tell us about the future of engineering, the impact of digital transformation and the opportunities for a green recovery?

First, let’s go back to an interview we recorded in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. As governments around the world began to announce stimulus packages, opportunities arose for engineers and other professionals to pivot to different industries where their skills were required. Louise Adams, Aurecon’s CEO for Australia and New Zealand, spoke with Trish White, Board Director of Engineers Australia, about what this could mean for the future of engineering careers and what skills might engineers need to acquire for this new workforce.

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Louise Adams: The interesting thing, I think, for engineers, we've seen a lot of discussion, quite rightly, because it's a medical crisis that we’re in, the focus on epidemiologists and medical scientists. They seem to be the new rock stars in the current pandemic. But what about engineers? What role do you think engineers have been playing in helping organisations deal with this current crisis?

Trish White: In response to calls from the Federal government for manufacturers to pivot into helping respond to the health emergency with manufactured equipment, and in response to phone calls from people like myself, I haven't come across people who haven't been willing to assist. And companies have pivoted in the most amazing way from manufacturing goods in plastics to all of a sudden, getting involved in PPE equipment for our hospitals, designing and building ventilators in a matter of weeks. They've just stepped up and done what engineers are particularly good at, that is solving problems and making sure that their solutions work.

Louise Adams: So before COVID-19 we spoke about some of the resource challenges that engineering has faced for a very long time. So how do you think the industry is going to cope now in delivering projects, given that shortage already existed and the governments are talking about putting even more infrastructure into the pipeline?

Trish White: Look it’s a pressure for us, but we have to solve it. We just have to. In this country, two thirds of the engineers in the workforce are migrant engineers, so we graduate only half as many as we rely upon from overseas. Looking at the threat that that pose to our country, we acknowledge that, at any one time, an individual company might turn off that flow of engineers. But what we've had is a shock where every country's engineers have been denied to us for a little time to come. We don't know how long. It really heightens the problem that we have. And the way that the thinking is going in Australia that we have to get our heads around, is that we've got to do some sort of pivot training of those that we have inside our borders at the moment. Getting them up to speed so that they can pivot across into the industries that we need at this critical time.

Louise Adams: Yeah it almost puts a bit more pressure on us to make sure that nobody's left behind in those pivots, which is a positive, really puts pressure on industry and government to make sure that there is that upskilling of and that pivoting of skill sets across rather than moving from one area to the next, and perhaps reinventing a new workforce.

Trish White: Well, I think it also just highlights the fact that old perceptions of what an engineer is need to change. There's skills families, rather than skills. There's things that are close to engineering that we really have to recognise. And where are those people and how can we upskill those capacities? What can we put in place to really help those people see the future potential careers that they can have, and help them on that journey?

Louise Adams: Do you see that those digital technologies and the digital upskilling plays an important role in aiding that pivot and in helping, and you think that'll continue post pandemic?

Trish White: I do. I think, a lot of engineers are very familiar with the digital world. The shift for an engineer working from home on the sort of digital platform front, I don't think has been as large as it has for some in the community. But the digitisation of businesses is at the core of the whole fourth industrial revolution time that we are in. And what I think has changed and become apparent to people with this COVID experience is that how fundamental it is to business as usual, not just what you plan to do as a good add on into the future, but how crucial it is to doing business in the current environment. So I think a lot more focus on digital awareness and digital capability for everyone in the community. And engineers are at the front of that.

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Maria Rampa: Even before the pandemic hit, we were discussing the future of engineering and what skills would be required in an increasingly digital world. Kylie Cochrane, Aurecon’s Managing Principal for Communications and Stakeholder Engagement, chatted with Felicity Furey, one of Australia’s most innovative engineers, in a pop-up studio at the World Engineers Convention held in Melbourne in November 2019.

Kylie Cochrane: And tell me, your presentation yesterday was titled Engineers of the Future Will be Philosophers. Why philosophers and what do you mean by that?

Felicity Furey: Well, I think philosophers ask some really interesting questions and as engineers, we're problem solvers, so we're always looking for answers to questions. And in preparing the presentation, I found it really interesting to learn that some science actually came originally from philosophy. So Democrates was an ancient philosopher who actually said, "What's the smallest thing that something can be divided into?" And that's when he came out with the concept of the atom. So I think by asking really different big questions, that we can be better engineers and the future of engineering is all about how we think, not about how much we know.

Kylie Cochrane: It's interesting you say that and it actually dovetails really nicely with the presentation I gave yesterday around the evolution of engineering. So we started in the traditional space, thinking about what would be the best design for this particular infrastructure, and it was very efficient in terms of resources, cost, direct route, but from a liveability perspective or an environment perspective or community perspective, it was perhaps not the best approach. Then we move of course to human centred or user centred design where the engineers start thinking about who they're designing for and my challenge to the people yesterday was actually we need to be in co-design.

Designing these things and engaging with the people for whom we're designing, communities, consumers, users. It makes sense, right? Yet we get some pushback.

Felicity Furey: If you look at how the world has been designed, you could say the world has been designed by 90% men. And there's implications for that. There was a book that came out this year called Invisible Women and it talked about how flu vaccinations actually were designed on male physiology. So women are more likely to have adverse reactions. Seat belt designs, airbags in cars. If your car was built before 2011 and you're a woman, you're 47% more likely to be injured, 17% more likely to die. So it's incredibly important that we have diverse thinking and diverse people who are solving these problems.

Kylie Cochrane: I love the way that the new breed of engineers are bringing together social issues, with their passion for engineering and we're seeing some really exciting things as a result.

Felicity Furey: Yeah. And when I talk to young people about the future of engineering, I say there’s kind of three parts. The first part is that engineering or your STEM skills. That's kind of like your toolkit and your foundation. The second part is the people. How do you actually communicate that and solve these challenges? But none of that's important if you don't know what you want to work on, what's the challenge you want to solve in the world? So I say to young people, "Think about the challenge you want to solve, and then that foundation of engineering and people skills will enable you to do that."

Kylie Cochrane: What do you think are the key skills that they will need to have as we move into the future?

Felicity Furey: Well, the World Economic Forum produced a paper this year, about leadership in the fourth industrial revolution. And interestingly they said the number one skill for leaders is empowering people. And we've changed from this command and control structure, to actually how can we support, engage and empower others. So I think that is going to be a really important skill, particularly as engineers. We need to be able to get people on side, we need to be able to convince them that our idea is the one to take forward. So we're going to have to be the influencers. We're going to have to be leaders, also be people centred. So being a white female, I can't design for everybody, but I can still ask people what their perspective is.

So I think we all need to be responsible and accountable for bringing in those different perspectives. It's going to become even more important as machines take these routine tasks. We're going to be having to bring the people skills and the human element to the fore, like never before.

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Maria Rampa: The future of engineering is in great hands. Next, Aurecon’s Design Director for Bridges, John Hilton, was joined by Tim Mumford from the Office of Projects Victoria to discuss how digital engineering and Building Information Modelling are transforming the way we work. So what is BIM and how could it enable smart cities in the future? Let’s find out.

Tim Mumford: At the crux of Building Information Modelling or BIM, is the idea that a object or a table, or an asset, or a pump or anything that goes into the things that we use every day has a whole bunch of parameters and information associated with it.

And that might include an operating temperature, it might include a manufacturer, it might include a capital cost. It might include a colour, it might include any number of things that's exceptionally valuable in totality. It's nice to know how many pumps you've got as well as how many manufacturers you've got across different types of assets. This information is so powerful throughout the life cycle of a project because you can make so much more informed decisions, and you can integrate real time data and make better decisions in the operating and maintenance phase of that same asset.

John Hilton: There's no doubt I can design my bridges faster and better, more accurately with a BIM approach and that's great. But you're also suggesting that the ownership and operation end of infrastructure is also improved, Tim?

Tim Mumford: 100%. Being able to design that same bridge, such a complex asset in a shorter period of time and provide more confidence and less risk is good for everyone. And that's at the heart of what digital engineering and all this stuff is about. And I'm particularly excited about what this could mean for the industry and I'm particularly excited about where some of the upsides are that we haven't even thought about for tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.

John Hilton: Look, I suspect I'm not alone in thinking that with smart infrastructure, with digital monitoring built into it, that some of the congestion challenges around the future might be resolved by autonomous cars or trains, buses, talking to smart infrastructure. Is that where you think it's going to?

Tim Mumford: Definitively. If you think of BIM as the micro-level, the macro-level is the digital twins and how our cities operate at a higher level. That involves integrating major data sets and sets of information that inform how we interact with the built environment and our infrastructure day on day. That might include weather data, that might include usage data, that might include geometrical data of how big buildings are. Getting information rights and the building blocks, which is BIM and digital engineering enables the idea of digital twins.

John Hilton: Are there certain types of infrastructure that you think are better suited to the use of BIM and BIM development? Or is there certain parts of infrastructure that are perhaps lagging? How do you see some of that between the different areas?

Tim Mumford: I think the built environment and the four walls are obviously ahead of the curve. And that's largely because BIM as a concept was born there. Civil and infrastructure in general, linear infrastructure is I would say a close second. And then the next one is around systems and major networks. I think once those three seek alignment and are on the same page, then we can launch into the idea of digital twins and just smart cities. And I don't think that's far away, to be honest.

I think we can all leverage what the built environment has done over the last 10, 15 years and really apply that in linear infrastructure and systems. Because it is smart cities that requires a complement of all those three things to provide valuable answers.

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Maria Rampa: Will the COVID-19 pandemic accelerate smart cities? Maybe, but it has also presented a once in a lifetime opportunity for us to transition towards a green economy. Harriet Floyd from Aurecon’s future energy team talks with Lillian Patterson, the Director of Energy Transformation at the Clean Energy Council about the potential for a green recovery as governments stimulate economies in response to the pandemic.

Harriet Floyd: The International Monetary Fund has projected global growth to fall by minus 3% in 2020 due to COVID. Asia is expected to fare better than other regions around the world, but New Zealand's economy is predicted to contract by 8% this year. In Australia there are almost 1 million people out of work and the reserve bank says the economy could shrink by 10%. I know the Clean Energy Council recently issued a report named A Clean Recovery that describes how the renewable energy industry will kickstart the Australian economy recovery. Can you talk me through some of the key initiatives that underpin this clean recovery?

Lillian Patterson: A Clean Recovery really describes how the renewable sector can assist the national economic recovery effort. There are four broad categories. The first one is around creating jobs, supporting local communities and empowering consumers and some of the initiatives are developing a national battery scheme and supporting small businesses and new homes to get solar on their rooftops.

The second category of initiatives is around building 21st century energy infrastructure. So, this is looking at building more transmission, supporting investment in large scale energy storage, and building an EV charging network.

The third category is around accelerating large scale clean energy investment, so facilitating continued investment in large scale solar and wind projects, and developing a offshore wind industry.

And the final category is about making Australia a clean energy superpower and this is really focused around establishing Australia's renewable hydrogen capacity. We see that there's so much potential for economic recovery through renewable energy. We've estimated that on the large scale side alone, a clean recovery could create over 50,000 new construction jobs and inject around $50 billion worth of investment into the Australian economy, particularly in regional areas where projects would be located.

Harriet Floyd: Have you seen any insights or lessons that we can learn from other countries or regions? Or even have other lessons that other countries can learn from our recovery.

Lillian Patterson: I think what we're seeing throughout the world is that renewable energy and emerging technologies such as energy storage and hydrogen, are playing a central role in the economic recovery plans of different countries. So countries within the EU, the UK, South Korea, Chile, Canada, UAE, Indonesia, Philippines, New Zealand, so a real diversity of different countries. As an example, the European Union has unveiled a 750 billion euro economic recovery plan, of which a significant amount of the contribution is to climate action investments so focused on renewable energy, clean transport, energy efficiency and emissions reduction.

Under this plan, on the renewable energy front, the EU would tender for 15 gigawatts of new solar and wind capacity over the coming two years representing 25 billion euros of investment, so huge dollars in investment in renewables. Renewable projects would also have access to a 10 billion euro loan pool administered by the European Investment Bank.

What I think this really shows and the lesson we can learn from this is that there is wide support for clean initiatives across governments and political parties. We should really embrace this global concept that clean energy investment is not just about supporting the economic recovery, but also about investing in our future.

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Maria Rampa: And that’s a wrap! Thank you for joining us for this season of Engineering Reimagined. Even though we’re facing enormous challenges, these conversations really give us hope for the future. We hope you enjoyed this recap. If you’re new to the podcast, hit the subscribe or follow button on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify. You can also follow Aurecon on social to join in the conversation about the podcast. Engineering Reimagined will return in early 2021 for season three. Until then, we wish you a safe and happy holiday season and thanks for listening.

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Show notes

2020 has certainly been a year of unprecedented events. Everyone – at home and work – has had to change the way things are done, and it’s been no different at Engineering Reimagined.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, we had to forgo the luxury of a ready pipeline of episodes and in-studio interviews. The team quickly adapted to home-based remote podcasting recording equipment, transporting it across the country so we can keep delivering and sharing quality, pandemic-appropriate content. We hope you have enjoyed this season and learned something new – because we certainly have learned to be agile and adapt to our changing world.

For this episode, we feature highlights of season two’s most popular interviews, where we discussed the future of engineering, the impact of digital transformation and the opportunities for a green recovery.

Like what you heard? Listen to the full podcast episodes below

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