Dr Jennifer Macdonald is a leading digital engineer.  Recently awarded her doctorate in Building Information Modelling, her career has also included six years as a lecturer in construction project management at the University of Technology in Sydney.

To mark International Women’s Day, we caught up with her to discuss tech skills, twins and the future of our built environment.

Q. The construction and infrastructure sectors are facing a well-documented skills gap – so what’s deterring people from entering this world?

A. I think there are many factors involved.  One of the big problems is still the public perception of the industry.  A lot of young people, and especially young women, don’t see construction as an appealing career. I think they still have an image of blokey guys on-site – and perhaps it seems a bit intimidating too.

In western countries , interest in STEM subjects in general has been declining over the years, though this is not the case in China, India, South East Asia and the Middle East.  In the past few years, when I have been supervising research students, the majority of the female students have come from these places.

For those who do choose to study STEM subjects, the likes of the Googles and the Amazons of the world are seen as much more forward-thinking, better paid and appealing to work for than the construction sector

Q. Is the perception of what’s involved in this sector still an outdated one?

A. In some ways, yes.  It’s not all about carrying a hod of bricks on a muddy construction site! As a female engineer I have experienced people’s surprise when I said that I was a structural engineer, or had people assume that I am the architect or a secretary.  I have also been asked questions in the past like “you are a structural engineer?! With hands like those?!”

In my own career I have mostly been office based, carrying out engineering design or developing information management strategies. I have been able to travel the world through my work and meet so many interesting people along the way.

As an engineer, you learn to break big problems into smaller, more easily solved chunks and to think logically. I think these are good skills for anyone to develop.

Q. What attracted you to focus on embedding digital techniques and capabilities in the lifecycle of the built environment? 

A. I have always had an interest in how to make things more efficient and in finding better ways to do things. That is what engineering is really all about. Digital is the enabler.

The biggest issue I saw in uptake of digital technologies was the lack of collaborative understanding between the different disciplines (e.g. architects, engineers, construction managers etc).  Everyone was just pushing data at each other without understanding what the other parties really actually needed.  I thought that part of this problem originated in the way we teach the different disciplines at university, in silos.

I developed a framework to help academics to make incremental changes to their curricula, with the aid of digital tools and processes, to improve understanding of collaborative, digital, working processes in their students.

Q. Is the role of data in today’s mega-projects clearly understood to the wider world?

A. I don’t think it is, really. I think many people would be very surprised at the amount of data a big project like, for example, HS2, generates before spades even go in the ground.  There is some all or nothing thinking happening. There is a lot of publicity around “big data” and “AI” and some people thinking that data can solve all our problems….or, on the other hand BIM or digital twin is just seen as an expensive “add on” to business as usual.

Part of the work I do at both PCSG and in some of the university teaching I’ve done, is to try to get people to see the bigger picture.  What is it that they want to achieve? What is the end goal? What information do you need to perform your job more effectively?  From that, you work backwards to what format it needs to take, when it needs to be delivered, by whom etc.

Q. Why is advancing the digital journey in this sector so important?

A. There have been so many reports published into our industry and how far behind other sectors it is in terms of digital adoption.  I think some of these do us a disservice. There is a lot of good work going on, but we do have unique challenges. We have to get smarter in how we construct and manage our infrastructure. In the UK and many other western countries, more than 95% of the infrastructure we will be using in 30 years or more has already been built.

If we think of the way we work now and the types of jobs that exist compared to 30 years ago, it is quite incredible. Data is key to efficiency in operations and maintenance.

Q. The big buzzword in our sector today is  ‘digital twins’ – what is their role in the built environment?  How will they help us to be more efficient in construction and more sustainable?

A. Yes…Digital Twin is overtaking “BIM” as the “next big thing” in our industry.  The key difference with the concept of digital twin is that there is a connection between the digital and the physical – changes in the real physical world are reflected in the virtual, for example, via data collected by sensors or satellites.

The concept of digital twin is in its infancy, but there are big strides being taken around the world.  In the UK, we have the National Digital Twin project being led by the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB). They have established the Gemini Principles as a framework for the development of digital twins.

Some of the better outcomes the CDBB believes will result from the use of Digital Twins in Construction include benefits to society (e.g. higher-performing infrastructure), to the economy (e.g. increased national productivity), to business (e.g better risk management) and to the environment (eg.less disruption and waste and greater resource efficiency).

Q. What skills should our future engineers be equipping themselves with? And what should our universities be teaching them?

A. I get asked this often these days. I always tell anyone starting out that if they have any skills or interest in programming or data science they should be developing those.  We also have to stop silo-ing our disciplines.  Learning how to collaborate effectively with the others on a team and seeing complex construction projects as multi-disciplinary challenges rather than one discipline being “king” would go a long way to helping to solve some of the issues around lack of trust and poor information exchange in construction.

If we look at recent industry initiatives such as the ICE’s Project 13, they are about trying to move away from the old litigious, transactional approach to delivery of our infrastructure to collaborative, enterprise-style delivery focused on outcomes rather than outputs.  Our universities also need to move to this way of thinking. I was only recently talking to a civil engineering academic who tried to tell me that the ideas around digital twin/BIM “aren’t real engineering – they are just for the IT academics”…it is so short sighted.

Q. Given the scale and pace of digital advancement in our sector, is this an exciting time to be an engineer?

A. Engineering has always been an exciting career to be in. If I think of the dawn of civil engineering as a distinct career in the 19th century with all the advances in railways and steel design and innovations led by the likes of Telford and Brunel, I think “wow”! We have really been there driving so many improvements in the way we all live and work for over 200 years.

I do think with the impact of coronavirus we are in a very challenging time and it will not be easy for current graduates coming out into a difficult work environment.

However, again if we look to our past, governments have always tended to invest in infrastructure projects to encourage economic growth post-recessions.  For example: the New Deal in the States and projects like the Hoover Dam post the Great Recession; the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme in Australia to provide employment for thousands of immigrants after the Second World War; and more recently the investment from the UK Government in the BIM Level 2 program after the 2008 financial crisis.

I think there will be a similar injection of funding and interest in our infrastructure post-COVID-19.

My own, anecdotal, observations of our industry has been that even the most “traditional”, or “old school” companies that were totally against flexible working and digital processes just two years ago, are now embracing it! It feels like progress was happening slowly but the COVID-19 crisis has maybe accelerated things by five years.

I also hope that it has opened up things for women, and especially working mothers, in our industry, as in some ways the move to working from home should have levelled things.

Personally, the crisis has let me live my own dream of being able to work more like a “digital nomad” and to base myself remotely and still continue working the same way.

Q. Data has played a central role in tracking the spread of coronavirus and supporting the national response – is this likely to prompt a surge of interest in data-related careers / study?

A. I hope so. Despite such terrible consequences and hardships so many have experienced from the crisis, I also think there are grounds for optimism. Prior to COVID-19, we all remember statements from our politicians such as “we have all had enough of experts” and so-on. Suddenly, this crisis has made us realise how reliant we are on expertise and science and data. The way out will be led by people with STEM skills, not politicians or pop stars or social media influencers!

Seeing scientists take centre stage and being able to communicate so clearly has been really refreshing.

I also hope that the crisis helps to address the digital divide that exists. We are seeing more programs established to provide laptops and internet connections to school children who didn’t have this access before.  Some of it feels too little too late and I really feel for families struggling to home school children  – but I also hope it has more positive outcomes of increasing access to the digital world.

Q. What are your hopes for how the design, build and operation of our built environment will change over the next decade?

A. Most of all, I hope that we move towards a more collaborative, less adversarial approach to design, build and operations.  I hope we move towards more outcomes-based, intelligent delivery of infrastructure and more of a partnership approach between clients and suppliers. On International Women’s Day particularly, we could reflect on how we have so quickly been able to move towards more digital and flexible ways of working and I really hope this will help to remove some of the barriers both to entering and continuing in the profession for women.