We can bring engineering to life by reimagining what we do - with Tracey Ryan

Managing director for Aurecon, Infrastructure NZ board member and chair of the FIDIC sustainability committee, Tracey Ryan, believes innovation should be at the heart of what we do as consultants and engineers. Last year, Aurecon was named The Australian Financial Review Most Innovative Company in Australia and New Zealand, and recently won The Australian Financial Review Best Places to Work in New Zealand and Australia.

Tracey Ryan

Tracey Ryan

What is Aurecon doing so well that secured the Most Innovative Company Award? 

Innovation is about changing the mindset of those within the business, and this is what led to Aurecon winning the Most Innovative Company award.   

We've been on the innovation journey for a while now, and the culture we have developed allows people to thrive while empowering them to think differently and challenge the status quo. Changing our mindset was instrumental in developing a new culture within the company, and that culture has become ingrained into our DNA.  

To an extent, it had taken staff back to the days when engineers were explorers and designers and thought out of the box. It has returned them to their younger days when they were curious, bold, and prepared to explore new ideas. As you get older, you tend to lose some of that adventure. 

Our diverse and inclusive culture allows adventurous thinking and empowers people to continue learning and be externally focused. This type of thinking is essential if we are to turn problems into opportunities. 

What emphasis does Aurecon place on innovation? 

We have cultivated an environment that encourages collaboration and allows our staff to challenge the status quo. Staff are encouraged to gain a complete understanding of their client's problems early in the process, which enables them to explore new ways of adding value to projects. 

Focusing on the client helps transform the project which ultimately benefits the end-user. 

What is the role of innovation in the future of engineering and consulting? 

Innovation will be vital to the future of our industry and, ultimately, the communities we serve. We're still seeing business complexities coming from the global pandemic all around the world. The challenges we have faced over the last 14 months have sped up the need to innovate, and this has allowed us to focus on the future of work and what that means. 

As we navigate the difficulties, uncertainty and volatility of doing business in a new way, we must include innovation at the heart of our thinking. We can't keep doing things in the same way as we have in past years, as this will prevent us from obtaining the best outcomes for our communities. 

We must continue to ask why and consider projects as an opportunity rather than a problem. 

How do you deal with the client that pushes back on your innovative ideas?  

Early interaction with clients should be designed to help them understand what we truly mean by innovation. 

Some clients cringe when they hear the word innovation as they fear it means something that is a little bit off the planet. However, it is often just the extra one per cent that makes a solution genuinely innovative. 

Our role is to help the client understand that innovation doesn't have to be expensive or lead to an amazingly complex technological solution. Many times, it's just doing things a little smarter or a little differently. It might be as simple as asking a different set of questions to uncover a better solution for what the client is trying to achieve.   

There is a tendency for engineers to start on the 'what' and 'how', and while those questions can lead to a technical solution, they really should return to the start and ask 'why'. Posing the question 'why' could conceivably drive a very different outcome, may ultimately save costs, better meet community expectations, and drive profitability outcomes. 

Moving on to your role with FIDIC, what is the sustainability committee working on at present? 

A big part of our role is to raise awareness of the part we play in society around climate change, water security, resilience and the built environment. As an industry, we must focus on raising the bar in tackling the challenges that the world is facing today.  

One of our major projects is preparing some papers and developing thought leadership ahead of COP 26, held in Glasgow in November this year. We are also exploring the development of partnerships to help promote our work concerning the built environment. It involves exploring how we build resilient cities and what that means to climate change, biodiversity and natural capital.  

FIDIC has recently released a state of the world report that includes chapters linked to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The report discusses engineers, designers, and advisors' role in aligning our goals on climate change, water security, biodiversity, and the built environment. We are also looking at how gender and poverty help define those goals. 

Another part of our work is to develop meaningful partnerships with other organisations because we can't achieve positive outcomes on our goals in isolation. We are part of the world ecosystem, and we need those partnerships right across FIDIC to bring different initiatives and voices together.  

We're also looking at developing a climate charter that outlines FIDIC's position on the planet's future.  

How can the engineering sector help mitigate the effects of climate change?  

It goes back to the 'why' that I was talking about previously. In years gone by, we talked about safety in design; this hasn't gone away, however, we are also looking at sustainability and climate change in design that is challenging our thinking. 

We need to consider the impact of climate change on an asset and the effect the asset will have on society and our community. Aotearoa is currently doing well in understanding the broader outcomes of our infrastructure projects by considering the impact of social elements, how the project will affect the environment, and its effect on our economic wellbeing. 

Another thing we need to be aware of is how projects impact the circular economy. It involves thinking about the supply chain and decarbonisation.  

Our sector needs to be thinking about all of these things to support the Government's commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change. 

So innovation in engineering is vital to the future of the world? 

Innovation needs to be front and centre in the first conversation that we have with our clients. We need to start thinking differently about the design of our projects. That thinking should include the types of material we are using, decarbonisation and how technology will play out in the final design. We need to bring a wide range of people into our conversations at an early stage of our programs and projects.  

Being involved in the world of engineering allows us to have benefits of purpose as we help build a better working world. We can bring engineering to life by reimagining what we do, and this will have a positive impact on society. 

Most people arrive at work each day with the purpose of doing good for the community, but there is complexity around how we achieve that. We must challenge ourselves to think about innovation every day, test the results, and incorporate design thinking into our projects. 

Our graduates are great at challenging traditional thinking. They have a vision of why they work in the way they do, and that comes through in their conversations with clients. These people challenge us to stop doing things in a particular way just because it's been done that way in the past.  

If Auckland is to become a world-class city, we need to engage in some different thinking so that people can live, play, work and meet the city's green aspirations. The beauty of engineering is that we can be part of that growth and change as long as we embrace innovative thinking.  

Connect with Tracey Ryan on LinkedIn