“What a time to be starting out in engineering” – Mott MacDonald Executive Chair

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Mike Haigh’s climate message to young engineers: “Your skills and training will make such a massive difference and that is really exciting.”

Marking forty years with Mott MacDonald, Executive Chair Mike Haigh has spoken with Infrastructure Global about what shaped his career, how change itself has now changed, and why he’s optimistic that the next generation of engineers will successfully deliver for the climate.

IG: You told industry earlier this year that while we shouldn’t return to a five-days-a-week office culture after Covid-19, companies must not give up their offices lightly because of the important role of senior people in helping to progress young professionals. How crucial has that been in your own career?

MH: “Massively important. When you think back about what influenced your career it’s the people you remember. That’s not just senior people either. It’s colleagues and mentors. All the people around me shaped my career and that’s something I worry about with Covid-19.

“We got through the worst of the pandemic relatively well, and I worry for the wellbeing of everyone but particularly younger people. We need to find the best possible balance between home and office working. Flexibility is invaluable but so is the ability to get together and work together, especially early in your career. We need that ability to turn around to colleagues and talk about problems. That can be personal challenges or issues with a project or career. We grow together and our industry must not lose that.”

“early in a career it’s often the specific challenges and new steps we take that inspire us.” Mike Haigh

Inspiration and Change

IG: And one of the big things young engineers prize is the chance to work on big projects and face big challenges. What stood out for you?

MH: “Later in a career there’s a focus on the bigger scale and outcomes of the work you do but early in a career it’s often the specific challenges and new steps we take that inspire us.

“Designing a retaining wall was exciting to me when I was starting out and learning my profession. It was a challenge and achievement and I think for young engineers, that day-to-day challenge and the excitement that brings is more vital than ever as the industry gears up for new challenges like climate change.”

IG: The last 40 years has seen a lot of change in how projects are delivered – be it the creation of BIM, rapid globalisation, a move away from conventional state-funding of infrastructure. Does each big change register as significant at the time or do they gradually just become normal?

MH: “I think this is really about the pace of change. That is one of the biggest changes I’ve seen. A lot has changed throughout my career, but a lot of the change was gradual, and people adapted as they went along.
I was still young when digital design was becoming important, so I was expected to be involved in programming using our mainframe at Mott MacDonald. That’s a great example of the different world we are in now.

“That initial journey from having a mainframe the size of a car, right through to having desktops on every desk, in reality that was a twenty-year period. We were able to do that gradually and in a fairly controlled way.

“Then if you turn the clock forward to the move from 2D to 3D and BIM, that change happened quickly and required a lot of retraining for people to adapt because we had to move fast to meet new expectations. So, the pace of change has certainly changed and retraining the industry quickly and managing change is something we now expect to do.

“Of course, the other big change we are all facing up to now is climate change and sustainability and the world did not move as fast as it should have over the last twenty or thirty years. Fortunately, awareness is now much higher and change is accelerating.”

“Everyone in infrastructure now has similar goals in regards to climate change… 

…The question is how do we make that real?” Mike Haigh

Decarbonisation, resilience and circularity

IG: How do you think we can best adapt the infrastructure industry to reflect that change?

MH: “There’s a wide range of climate requirements, challenges and opportunities, now in front of Mott MacDonald. Clients vary in how focused they are on sustainability and climate change but most are now requiring support from their supply chain, meaning decarbonisation, resilience and circularity are areas we really need to offer solutions for. We make the necessary tools available to staff to meet those expectations.

“It is also incumbent upon us to have a voice about climate change and help the industry to move forward. Much of the infrastructure sector is now on the same page but while planners and designers are well-versed in sustainability, we have a big responsibility to help the supply chain understand the expectations on them now.

“I see a parallel here with digitalisation. Clearly our partners need to be able to use the same digital tools as us and the same tools as each other. That needs to be our approach to sustainability too.

“We have issued our own position papers on climate change and resilience and through these we make it clear what our commitments are both internally and with our clients. We are also part of the Net Zero Infrastructure Industry Coalition demonstrating our commitment to cross industry collaboration. We can also bring designers, contractors and employers together to discuss the challenge of the day through things like the Carbon Crunch events that we run every year.”

IG: For some sectors, advocacy can feel like putting your head above the parapet. As a business leader in engineering, do you feel there’s a risk at all in being seen to challenge clients, financiers and governments too heavily?

MH: “No. Everyone in infrastructure now has similar goals in regards to climate change, so for our profession there’s no problem with restating the need for decarbonised, sustainable and resilient infrastructure – both existing and new.

“The question is how do we make that real? At Mott MacDonald we take the measuring of carbon very seriously to help our clients to see the impact and understand it. But the whole industry has a responsibility to put a voice to its principles and I think that’s widely recognised and acted on.

“One thing we need to see though is an end to fragmentation between owners, operators, designers and contractors. We need to bring down or blur those silos, and again, we have a role to play here in helping decision-makers, especially in public infrastructure, to make the right investments.”

“In regions with less infrastructure already in place I see great opportunity for leapfrogging and taking advantage of new technologies.”  Mike Haigh

The opportunities ahead

IG: One of the big challenges in decision-making is that there are two very different worlds in regards to infrastructure – with the challenges in developed and developing nations very different to each other. How can industry help reflect that?

MH: “One thing worth doing is thinking differently about the opportunities available. If you think about Europe and America, the infrastructure already in place needs to be repurposed and changed to achieve a low carbon future but I think there’s a real opportunity to do things very differently in the developing world.

“In regions with less infrastructure already in place I see a great opportunity for leapfrogging and taking advantage of new technologies. We can learn from the telecoms world where places that didn’t have large networks of copper wires already in the ground, really accelerated in the 1990s with the adoption of mobile data technology.

“We ought to be thinking along those lines and maybe even looking at how we might use drones in future for transport in ways that could take the place of investment in traditional heavy civil infrastructure.”

“Every sector, city and country is going to be slightly different with different needs and challenges, and that is OK. There is no fixed blueprint” Mike Haigh

COP26

IG: With that in mind, COP26 is asking all countries to set big targets for carbon reduction by 2030. What do you want to see from those targets?

MH: “The big thing is turning the big and very laudable commitments into actions in terms of infrastructure delivery. As an industry we really want to be challenged to deliver on decarbonisation goals, so we want to see clear actions emerge. We are all, keen to help set the roadmap and deliver on it.

“There is a big part to play for data here too. We now have a massive amount of information that relates to our infrastructure in countries like the UK and are working hard to get more out of existing assets. We can create digital twins and other modelling systems and test solutions but that is only as good as the data available and at the moment, not all data is available. So, if we can make sure that data is freely available to the right people that would help.”

IG: Unfortunately, we know climate change is already having an impact on severe weather events. Is there a risk that mitigating the effects of that on communities and habitats stands in something of a competition for resource against the need for decarbonisation?

MH: “At Mott MacDonald, we see there being three great pillars: decarbonisation, resilience and circularity. These need to fit together not stand apart.

“We know decarbonisation is a very strong focus for good reason, but we must not let the prospect of technologies like renewable energy become a reason not to think differently too. The world is experiencing more frequent and more devastating climate events already and we need to address that. The communities we serve must be helped to be resilient.

“That doesn’t mean that prioritisation won’t happen. Every sector, city and country is going to be slightly different with different needs and challenges, and that is OK. There is no fixed blueprint for the right way to progress. We just need to understand the environment we operate in and apply the principles in the right way in each situation.”

IG: In the end, a lot of what is possible will be determined by money, and money will in large part be determined by public demand. Engineers often score highly in surveys of who the public trusts, so what is your role as an engineer in ensuring that public demand is there?

MH: “We have a huge role in that. The role of engineers as a public voice varies differently from country to country, but engineering has a good and credible voice and I’m in favour of making it better heard.

“In the end infrastructure is all about people – it is there to be used. So, as we move towards net zero, we have to think and talk about how to do it, what we actually need and, importantly, wider issues around people’s behaviour.

“A big cause for optimism is that public awareness has really accelerated now, but the nitty gritty of delivering lower carbon infrastructure will require even more engagement with the public about how we deliver and how the public uses infrastructure.”

IG: One of the things the UN has called for at COP26 is greater collaboration. We know there are challenges to collaboration, such as where legal risk sits, but are you optimistic that the infrastructure sector overcome those challenges?

MH: “Yes. You only have to look at the ICE’s Project 13 in the UK to see that the industry wants greater integration. Integrated teams result in better outcomes from saving money to reducing carbon, but it takes commitment to achieve that on the ground.

“The water sector has really led the way with great advances in alliancing, largely through programmes of work. A team put together with common objectives and common culture can really deliver a better environment for delivery.”

“Our industry is in a unique position to be a big part of the solution.” Mike haigh 

Collaboration and doing things differently

IG: So if you could pick out a technology, trend or project that you want decision-makers and industry to learn from, what would it be?

MH: “It is easy to get people interested in a new technology like green hydrogen or transport drones but what I’d really like to see is real investment in a more integrated approach in the world of public infrastructure, and that is difficult to do.

“We need to create the space to invest in doing things differently and we need to train young people in collaboration, because for anyone working in integrated teams, that is how you get the right approach and culture and generate the best results.”

IG: And finally, you are attending COP26 in November. How optimistic are you that we will get this right so the infrastructure sector can meet the climate challenge and zero carbon targets for 2050?

MH: “On the one hand, there’s a great deal of concern and worry about how the world responds to climate change – and rightly so. Our industry is in a unique position to be a big part of the solution and we can make a really big difference in resilience, decarbonation and circularity.

“And what a time it is now to be starting a career in engineering. Your skills and training are going to be part of making such a massive difference and that is really exciting.

“So, I am optimistic. Will it be straightforward? No, it won’t. The world should have started earlier but we are starting now and I’d like to see in the next two or three years, the real changes in our behaviours that will make the difference.”