Aecom boss prepares for tech revolution
Young workers ‘reverse mentoring’ their older colleagues, design driven by artificial intelligence, and more inclusivity in the workforce – just some of the measures. Aecom UK and Ireland chief executive David Barwell is introducing to prepare the business for construction’s brave new digital world. Neil Gerrard reports. Photography: Morley von Sternberg.
As far as Aecom is concerned, construction’s digital revolution is already on the doorstep. That’s why the firm’s UK and Ireland chief executive David Barwell is hard at work preparing the business and its workforce for the changes it will bring.
“The impact of recent technological advancements is transforming our industry, with new digital tools helping to increase productivity and create efficiencies throughout the design and construction process,” says Barwell. “Recognising the significance of these technological advancements in bringing about new ways to optimise project delivery, improving our employees’ digital skillsets is a priority for our business.”
Dave Barwell cv
- Began his career in 1987 as an engineer working for DHV Consulting before moving on to become a chartered engineer at Halcrow.
- Moved to Australia in 1995 as a project manager for Maunsell Australia in Sydney, later becoming a transportation manager in New South Wales for the same firm.
- Joined Aecom in 2000 as national manager for rail in Australia and New Zealand before becoming regional managing director for Queensland in 2003.
- Promoted in 2007 to chief operating officer of Aecom for Australia and New Zealand.
- Moved to Abu Dhabi in 2009, becoming chief executive of the Middle East business in 2009.
- Became chief executive, cities, in Europe, Middle East, India and Africa in 2016.
- Appointed chief executive of Aecom’s UK and Ireland business a year later.
He has overseen a shift in mindset that ensures everyone at Aecom – which recently announced that it would stop bidding for tier 1 contracting jobs in the UK in favour of providing construction and project management services to delivery partners – considers the advantages of digital technology from the very beginning.
The thinking falls under what the company calls its “digital healthy start” initiative. Barwell explains: “It is applied to projects as they mobilise to ensure we’re introducing the right digital tools to optimise delivery from the very start, and upskill the teams where needed.”
Enhancing digital tools
Meanwhile, Aecom has been investing heavily in the tools themselves, including the artificial intelligence (AI) used in its design anomaly detector (DAD) digital tool, which improves productivity in the design reviewing process by automatically identifying potential design enhancements.
“We’re working with world-leading AI practitioners to help the DAD develop its capabilities and it’s getting smarter with
every project. The more designs the algorithm is exposed to, the better it is getting at correctly spotting opportunities and we’re really excited about how this will transform the design review process going forward,” says Barwell.
In addition, Aecom is working to expand its use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) tools. The firm is already well known for its use of VR on the Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park, London, where its design team created a 3D digital model of the structure and brought it to life using VR headsets.
Barwell enthuses: “I’m really excited about how these immersive technologies are increasingly becoming an integral part of the design process – this approach has been pioneered on the Serpentine Pavilion.
“Also, through the use of immersive technologies during the design stage on the Japoma Stadium project, for example, we were able to accelerate the design and construction of a new 50,000-seat stadium in Cameroon, drastically reducing the programme of delivery from three to two years.”
Of course, the application of this new technology requires a workforce capable of getting the best out of it, and so it’s no surprise that one of Aecom and Barwell’s other key priorities is training.
Within Aecom, there is a programme which employs its digital transformation team to look at how it can upskill everyone in the business. In addition to including a strong digital line in its graduate and apprenticeship programmes, the company is set to introduce what it calls “reverse mentoring” which, unusually, will see new apprentices and graduates transmit their digital skills to existing workers following a successful pilot programme.
Meanwhile, the firm partners a number of universities to develop teaching and learning that is attractive to industry and tailored towards accreditations with professional bodies. In fact, both its graduate and apprentice training have undergone recent investment that has seen both groups brought together in 2018 for the first time under the company’s Advance programme.
Explaining the thinking, Barwell says: “By combining our graduate and apprentice development programmes, we’re demonstrating that we’re invested in everyone’s learning and development regardless of their level of education when they join us.