Fostering innovation during a global health pandemic
The response to the coronavirus pandemic has been incredible and a reminder that innovation is often born out of necessity. In this instance, innovative solutions are helping address some of the world’s challenges. To see how this is playing out at AECOM, we sat down with Steve Morriss, president of AECOM’s Design & Consulting Americas (DCSA) business, and Orla Pease, vice president of Digital and Innovation for DCSA.
How is AECOM weathering the coronavirus pandemic?
Steve: It hasn’t been without challenges, but I’m proud of how we’ve come together to support our people, our clients and our communities. The need to collaborate across the globe fueled our digital transformation several years ago, allowing us to quickly pivot to remote working as the pandemic spread, with up to 90 percent of our workforce becoming virtual. The feedback from our clients has been exceptional. We also have an amazing team of disaster response specialists in the U.S. who were able to rapidly mobilize in support of the pandemic response, helping our clients expand hospital capacity by thousands of beds in alternate medical care facilities. We also have a strong digital and innovation team that is helping our clients engage with the public virtually during this time. Like everyone, we still don’t know how the long-term economic impacts will play out, but we’ve kept a great team together, built a strong foundation and are actively engaged in helping companies and states plan a safe return-to-service and a better normal.
What role has innovation played in your pandemic response?
Steve: It’s been critical. From the earliest days of the pandemic, I’ve been receiving messages saying, “what if we do this?”; “have we considered this approach?” and so on. I’ve always known we have some of the brightest minds in the industry, but to see what’s possible when we are all united by a common purpose — in this case, a crisis — has been incredible.
Orla: Yes, exactly. And it’s not just new ideas either. We’ve invented brand-new apps and service offerings, of course, but we’ve also repurposed existing digital solutions in new and exciting ways that we didn’t anticipate prior to this crisis. The urgency of the pandemic helped expedite early-stage innovations like our virtual consultation tool and it unlocked the potential of earlier innovations to new use cases like our MobiliticsTM scenario planning platform. Witnessing a company as large as AECOM innovate at the speed of a startup has been an incredible experience.
Can you give an example of an AECOM innovation driven by the pandemic?
Orla: I come from a transportation background so I may be biased, but one of my favorites is the reimagining of our MobiliticsTM platform. A few years ago, a team of traffic planners and engineers won AECOM’s Global Challenge innovation contest with an idea to use census data to model travel demand scenarios and inform the decision-making process of transportation agencies around questions such as:
- How will electric vehicles change traffic patterns?
- Will autonomous vehicles change our needs for parking space?
With seed money from the challenge, MobiliticsTM was born. When the coronavirus crisis began, the team quickly realized the potential of combining the tool with big data to help address issues such as which people can come back to work and from what neighborhoods, and which areas will have the most traffic given stages of reopening. We partnered with big data providers to introduce geospatial dimensions to the data set and rewrote the algorithms. The result is a platform that can help transit agencies determine which trains or buses to put into service, at what capacity, frequency and timetable based on parameters shaped by the coronavirus pandemic. It takes the trial-and-error out of a return to service.
Steve: There are so many examples, but one of my favorites that I’m following closely is the ability to detect coronavirus in wastewater. Our water specialists are involved in wastewater testing and plant design for almost all of the major treatment plants in the United States. Through a combination of client relationships, deep experience in the science of wastewater and global studies that have proven the ability to detect the virus in wastewater, our team has developed a strategy to implement nationwide COVID-19 wastewater sampling, testing and analysis. The implications for this innovation are tremendous as states begin to test reopening of businesses. The more data available about this virus that we can get into the hands of scientists and public health officials — the better their ability to make decisions.
Much has been written about the difficulty of harnessing innovation. How did you do it?
Steve: We hired Orla. Well, only partially kidding. We’ve recognized for some time now that the keys to competitiveness are collaboration and innovation. It’s what our clients want and should expect from us. As important, innovation is also the key to retaining great people. No one wants to work in a design factory. The best and brightest want to work for a company that challenges them and rewards out-of-the-box thinking. It is no coincidence for me, that the more we focus on innovation and technical excellence, the more our team members want to stay at AECOM.
Orla: It takes a holistic approach and support from leadership — and we have that in Steve and all of our senior leaders. It’s also critical that innovation not be relegated to a one-off initiative; it must become part of the fabric of employee experience, which is why the first pillar of innovation we deployed was around people. We’ve tried to do that in a number of ways. The Global Challenge I mentioned earlier is an innovation competition, looking for the next big idea. Each year, winners receive a share of a $1 million prize to further develop their idea. The consistency of this challenge and the “no-kidding-this-has-gone-to-market” part about it has made it incredibly powerful. We also realize that sometimes, an innovation might not be the next big global idea, but it can still have major impact on a local level. To harvest and reward these smaller ideas with a big impact, we’ve launched Mindblazer innovation challenges, which are quicker challenges that reward winners with time to move their ideas forward.
In addition, we’ve set up a group of nearly 200 early career “Innovation Agents” to help drive the culture throughout the organization and an Innovation Council to help steer what can be a big ship with the soul of a speedboat. Telling the story of innovation is also critical. Every year, we celebrate our top 10 innovative projects. We produce Innominutes — 60-second videos about recent innovations — and Innovation Showcases, which are deeper dives with Q&A. Keeping it all together is strong leadership commitment. I believe this foundation has been a critical component to our coronavirus response.
That’s a lot. What’s next?
Steve: I know I don’t just speak for myself when I say we are hoping for a quick end to the pandemic. Realistically though, we know there is a long way to go — in helping clients safely return to operations and developing a measured, phased return to service. We also know that what we are returning to will be different than what we left. But some things will remain the same. I have been particularly impressed with how our clients have continued to focus on key issues like sustainability and social equity throughout the pandemic. How do we take the best of what we’ve seen, engineer resilient solutions to the vulnerabilities that have been exposed and design, build, engineer and plan for a better normal? How do we ensure that we get the best possible returns on much-needed stimulus funding? Those are the questions we are helping clients with today.
Orla: The path ahead isn’t easy, but I’m energized by the promise of a better normal. The coronavirus has forced the world’s biggest pilot of digital work/life. It has created the greatest experiment in CO2 reduction the world has ever seen, and it has forced widespread behavior changes in record time. The question I’m asking is, how can we design infrastructure that continues these positive gains so that we aren’t just creating a new normal but a better normal? A better normal must also be a resilient one; our industry has so much to offer in designing systems and structures that can withstand the shocks and stressors of pandemics, weather events and all types of future uncertainties.
We’re crowdsourcing ideas on a better normal from our employees and are convening clients, policy makers and thought leaders in a virtual hackathon to “hack a better normal” with multiple perspectives and creative problem solving. Solving problems is our profession and our passion, and this crisis will undoubtedly be the mother of many more innovations to come.