Cultivating Innovation During Times of Rapid Change
Q: Let's start with regulations. In times of transition and rapid change, how can clients continue to innovate and what are some of the best ways to navigate through the uncertainty?
“The underlining problems that affect our communities—things like providing clean drinking water, safely disposing of waste and protecting human health—aren’t going away,” says CDM Smith’s research and development manager Karen Kelley. “We can’t stop addressing these issues just because we don’t know what the regulations are going to look like.” But, through an improved understanding of how our systems work, we will be better positioned to make swift decisions and wise use of funding. “Now is the time for utilities and private companies to dig into their systems, connect their data sources, and truly understand what assets they have and how they are performing,” urges Kelley. Having a deep understanding of your system and its performance will best prepare you for meeting any future regulations. It will also enable you to capitalise on opportunities for system efficiencies that may bring cost savings.
Staying informed about policy changes and understanding their implications, though increasingly difficult, is another way to help minimise challenges and provide the best value for your investment. “Following the process—from the first governmental recommendations to Parliament’s ultimate approval or denial—is one of the best ways clients can manage their uncertainty,” says CDM Smith’s environmental services manager Andrea Sewall. The good news is that regulatory reform often breeds a new wave of innovative thinking. And by finding new ways to promote sustainability, Sewall says, we will be able to “combat increasing regulations, regardless of what happens on the political floor.”
Innovation is all about fostering the conversation, promoting creative thinking, and crossing multiple silos to bring those ideas to life.
Q: Adopting a proactive approach to new regulations is certainly challenging. What efforts can we take today to ensure we are prepared for the future?
Simply put, the path forward lies in technological innovation. Joe Kowalczyk, senior vice president of CDM Smith’s construction unit, has been observing this trend for years. “Today’s technology is transforming our standard processes and procedures by introducing new materials, means, and methods to come to new conclusions,” says Kowalczyk. For proof of this theory, Kowalczyk says we can observe how the construction industry is changing based on these four trends:
- E-tools like total stations, drones, HoloLens mixed reality googles, and field tablets are introducing new ways to innovate project construction at a rapid pace, becoming as much a part of the project lifecycle as traditional engineering plans and specifications.
- A new era of interactive modeling is boosting collaboration and helping clients meet their objectives. Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) and Building Information Technology (BIM) have also ushered in an accelerated method of improved participant engagement, since issues like improved latency, clash detection, and sequencing can reduce risk and manage contingency before construction ever even begins.
- In projects of the past, data was typically collected and maintained in departmental silos, creating a bottleneck of information and rendering it useless to anyone else involved in the process but outside a silo. Now data collection and integration through cloud-based storage systems puts this info at the fingertips of everyone who needs it, contributing to faster response times, increased efficiencies and an enhanced ability to analyse (and act on) improvement plans.
- Client communication now demands complete transparency. Because clients now understand how things happen—thanks to an overall growth in public education and community involvement—there is an increased focus on improving project delivery through common technology communication platforms such as E-Builder, Procore, Autodesk BIM 360, or Navisworks, and the list goes on.
The application of these tools, coupled with the heightened level of collaboration we have adopted with clients, has transformed our ability to improve project outcomes and usher in a more connected future. Those who do not welcome and adopt these tools will be left behind.
What is most groundbreaking in the world of innovation today is the cross-pollination of problem-solving strategies that now exist across multiple industries. “You get incredible synergy when you apply one technology to another service, especially when you’re able to develop strategies that are remedies for the larger, complex projects of the past,” Sewall says. “We see this happening in the PFAS treatment arena, where we are developing innovative technologies capable of destroying PFAS compounds in many different kinds of media, like drinking water, wastewater and groundwater.”
“We’re witnessing a significant change in the way we find solutions for clients—whether it’s developing artificial intelligence or applying digital twins such as PipeCASTTM,” says Kelley. “The insights we are able to get by marrying our traditional expertise with these new tools have been groundbreaking.”
You might find it surprising to hear a seasoned constructor tout communication as the most important innovation on the job site, but that is exactly what Kowalczyk does. Technology and access to real-time data are enabling a new level of communication on infrastructure projects and this “has helped us better understand our clients’ needs and apply technologies that advance all aspects of the project life cycle,” Kowalczyk adds.
You get incredible synergy when you apply one technology to another service.
Q: So what does the future of innovation of look like? And what would you say is the secret to unlocking it within your organisation? What steps can we take today to ensure a successful future?
In the past, project delivery was linear. But now, thanks to innovative technology and an enhanced work flow, our ability to provide solutions for clients has advanced significantly. “When we go from asking, ‘what elements should be included in a model?’ to ‘how can we apply innovative technologies that best fit the client’s needs?’ we begin to understand and apply innovative strategies that maximise value and ensure project success,” Kowalczyk says.
At CDM Smith, the key to successful innovation is a rich research and development programme, and letting the staff closest to the clients and the problems offer up suggestions for research projects. “Innovation is all about fostering the conversation and promoting creative thinking,” says Kelley, which is why giving employees an outlet for the out-of-the-box ideas is so critical. “Not only are we able to connect people with all the necessary resources, but we’re crossing multiple silos to bring these ideas to life."
Most importantly, the advancements of the future rely heavily on the next generation. Young professionals, Sewall says, have a unique perspective on the idea of promoting sustainable development because “the ones who accept change are the ones who will be around for the next 50 years.”
Today's technology is transforming our standard processes and procedures and allowing us to come to new conclusions.