People Spotlight, Resilience, Sustainability, UK&I, Water

Our People Spotlight series gives you an inside look at our technical experts around the world. This week, we are highlighting the waterways and coastal engineering lead from our Water business line in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

As technical head of waterways and coastal engineering, Peter plays a pivotal role in leading our exceptional team to deliver projects that protect communities and create sustainable legacies, in the UK and Ireland. With expertise from across the UK and Middle East, he supports the feasibility, design and delivery of water resource projects, whilst also taking a hands-on approach to recruitment and skills development within the water sector. Peter is a revered Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and actively champions careers in civil engineering.

What inspired you to join the industry?

My career as an engineer came about more by chance than design due to some incredible advice from a great aunt – she clearly knew what I should do when I couldn’t see it for myself, and I owe her a great deal.

Water and the environment are important to me. I grew up sailing and enjoying reservoirs, rivers and our coasts, and I have always found being close to, in or on water incredibly energising and relaxing. It is such an undervalued natural resource. I feel very fortunate to be able to combine this passion with my work. You could say I’ve discovered my ikigai (sense of purpose).

Canals have also been a common theme during my career, having worked on the Millennium Link, restoring the world’s first sea to sea canal across Scotland as a graduate. Whilst I have to admit, the first one I travelled on was the Panama Canal on a two-year sailing sabbatical, so I’ve seen both ends of the scale.

I began my career with AECOM in 2008 managing the flood risk and hydrology team in Edinburgh, then was promoted to lead our Water business in Scotland, before leading the UK AECOM team working on the Jazan Economic City Port and Infrastructure Programme.

What is your favourite AECOM project that you’ve worked on and why?

It’s got to be the Glasgow Smart Canal – a first for Europe and recognised through multiple awards. I worked on conceiving this project in 2013, which aimed to repurpose the 250-year-old canal system to support society today, and well into the future. We combined our engineering expertise with innovative technology to create a digital representation of the canal system, which allows for the effective and accurate management of water.

By actively lowering the normal water level, the system creates a capacity to absorb stormwater runoff, which has enabled north Glasgow to be regenerated, transforming the area with growing communities. By repurposing the canals, the project helped avoid the estimated 5,000 tonnes of capital carbon and 30,000 tonnes of operational carbon over its agreed lifespan.

Paddle boarding along the canal has become one of my favourite pastimes and the BBC even came to capture it:

Tell us a story of how your work positively impacted the community

The Smart Canal project delivered so much more beyond what was initially considered a technical solution to a technical challenge. The ripple effect of creating a sustainable solution focused around blue and green infrastructure shouldn’t be underestimated. The spaces that this approach create are invaluable to local communities, appreciated more so in the context of the recent pandemic, when everyone was forced to appreciate their local surroundings much more.

The canal corridor in Glasgow has been subject to research considering the improvements driven by this and similar projects, with evidence showing how providing space for all species to thrive, including humans, is critical. This evidence shows a reduction in chronic and mental illness, and an increase in life expectancy from the local communities and I’m proud of having been able to develop and deliver a significant project that contributes to this.

Share a piece of career advice

Challenge the norm and collaborate. Work hard to develop foresight and avoid the lessons of hindsight.

Much has changed over the past few years with regards to the impacts of climate change, with increasing periods of floods and droughts having major impacts on communities and environments. As an engineer, it’s important we bring innovative thinking to project delivery, embracing nature-based and least carbon solutions to build resilience.

Working as part of AECOM’s integrated offering allows us to question ideas, embrace new technology and collaborate to find the best solutions to very complex problems facing the water environment.

Originally published Feb 15, 2023

Author: Peter Robinson