Aecom boss enbraces digital revolution

Young workers ‘reverse mentoring’ their older colleagues, design driven by artificial intelligence, and more inclusivity in the workforce – just some of the measures Aecom UK and Ireland chief executive David Barwell is introducing to prepare the business for construction’s brave new digital world. Neil Gerrard reports. Photography: Morley von Sternberg

As far as Aecom is concerned, construction’s digital revolution is already on the doorstep. That’s why the firm’s UK and Ireland chief executive David Barwell is hard at work preparing the business and its workforce for the changes it will bring.

“The impact of recent technological advancements is transforming our industry, with new digital tools helping to increase productivity and create efficiencies throughout the design and construction process,” says Barwell. “Recognising the significance of these technological advancements in bringing about new ways to optimise project delivery, improving our employees’ digital skillsets is a priority for our business.”

He has overseen a shift in mindset that ensures everyone at Aecom – which recently announced that it would stop bidding for tier 1 contracting jobs in the UK in favour of providing construction and project management services to delivery partners – considers the advantages of digital technology from the very beginning.

The thinking falls under what the company calls its “digital healthy start” initiative. Barwell explains: “It is applied to projects as they mobilise to ensure we’re introducing the right digital tools to optimise delivery from the very start, and upskill the teams where needed.”

Enhancing digital tools

Meanwhile, Aecom has been investing heavily in the tools themselves, including the artificial intelligence (AI) used in its design anomaly detector (DAD) digital tool, which improves productivity in the design reviewing process by automatically identifying potential design enhancements.

“We’re working with world-leading AI practitioners to help the DAD develop its capabilities and it’s getting smarter with
every project. The more designs the algorithm is exposed to, the better it is getting at correctly spotting opportunities and we’re really excited about how this will transform the design review process going forward,” says Barwell.

In addition, Aecom is working to expand its use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) tools. The firm is already well known for its use of VR on the Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park, London, where its design team created a 3D digital model of the structure and brought it to life using VR headsets.

Dave Barwell cv

  • Began his career in 1987 as an engineer working for DHV Consulting before moving on to become a chartered engineer at Halcrow.
  • Moved to Australia in 1995 as a project manager for Maunsell Australia in Sydney, later becoming a transportation manager in New South Wales for the same firm.
  • Joined Aecom in 2000 as national manager for rail in Australia and New Zealand before becoming regional managing director for Queensland in 2003.
  • Promoted in 2007 to chief operating officer of Aecom for Australia and New Zealand.
  • Moved to Abu Dhabi in 2009, becoming chief executive of the Middle East business in 2009.
  • Became chief executive, cities, in Europe, Middle East, India and Africa in 2016.
  • Appointed chief executive of Aecom’s UK and Ireland business a year later.

Barwell enthuses: “I’m really excited about how these immersive technologies are increasingly becoming an integral part of the design process – this approach has been pioneered on the Serpentine Pavilion.

“Also, through the use of immersive technologies during the design stage on the Japoma Stadium project, for example, we were able to accelerate the design and construction of a new 50,000-seat stadium in Cameroon, drastically reducing the programme of delivery from three to two years.”

Of course, the application of this new technology requires a workforce capable of getting the best out of it, and so it’s no surprise that one of Aecom and Barwell’s other key priorities is training.

Within Aecom, there is a programme which employs its digital transformation team to look at how it can upskill everyone in the business. In addition to including a strong digital line in its graduate and apprenticeship programmes, the company is set to introduce what it calls “reverse mentoring” which, unusually, will see new apprentices and graduates transmit their digital skills to existing workers following a successful pilot programme.

University partnerships

Meanwhile, the firm partners a number of universities to develop teaching and learning that is attractive to industry and tailored towards accreditations with professional bodies. In fact, both its graduate and apprentice training have undergone recent investment that has seen both groups brought together in 2018 for the first time under the company’s Advance programme.

Explaining the thinking, Barwell says: “By combining our graduate and apprentice development programmes, we’re demonstrating that we’re invested in everyone’s learning and development regardless of their level of education when they join us.

“Apprenticeships play a vital role in addressing our industry’s persistent skills gap and as a company we value them equally with full-time college and university courses as an education route. While technical competence is a vital component of apprentice and graduate career development, there are also wider business skills we want our people to possess, including negotiation, commercial know-how and collaboration. Through Advance, we’re investing in additional training that will complement work to develop their technical expertise and help our graduates and apprentices quickly grow into accomplished professionals.”

The make-up of those professionals in Aecom’s workforce is changing too, as the company makes efforts to mirror the communities it serves by increasing the levels of diversity among its staff. Barwell claims “great results” when it comes to recruiting more female employees, particularly at entry level.

Aecom has changed the way in which it promotes graduate positions to place a greater emphasis on inclusivity, and that has led to an increase in the number of female graduates in its annual intake to 43% in the UK and Ireland in 2018.

Returners programme

The company has also instituted a returners programme to help increase diversity at the same time as addressing the skills shortage. Aimed at people with mid- to senior-level experience, the programme supports both men and women back into the workplace following career breaks, helping their transition back into work.

Aecom hopes that by recruiting individuals with higher levels of experience, it is tapping into a pool of highly qualified professionals that previously hasn’t been well exploited.

“While I’m proud of the progress we’re making towards gender equality in our business, we won’t stop until we are fully satisfied our workforce represents the communities we serve,” Barwell says.

“I attended an event recently organised by our staff that discussed diversity and inclusion, and a key takeaway for me was the importance of training line managers on understanding and encouraging diversity in its many forms.” 

Working flexibly

Looking beyond recruitment and training, Aecom is also examining how its people work. That means opening itself up to employees working more flexibly than has traditionally been the case.

Last year, the company launched a programme called Freedom to Grow, in the UK and Ireland, which empowers people to find the working style that suits them best.

“Time and place are two elements of  Freedom to Grow and we’re challenging the notion that 9 to 5 are core hours of work. We hold the view that people need to work the hours required to perform their role – and this can be to suit early birds, night owls and everything in between. While we recognise the importance of having an office as a primary location of work and we know the importance of face-to-face collaboration, we also know that work can happen anywhere,” says Barwell.

So far, the feedback from Freedom to Grow has been positive, with many Aecom employees taking the opportunity to adopt a new approach to working. Barwell hopes to persist with the programme, arguing that it allows people to play to their strengths.

As far as his own style of working is concerned, Barwell likes to think that he is open and honest with his employees and sees it as key to communicating effectively.

He concludes: “I am genuinely interested in their opinions and their ideas for making us better as a business. One piece of advice I often give when speaking to new recruits is to always remember the bigger picture in their work and the difference they are making to the world around us. Often, this is about seeing through our clients to the wider community so that we can help them achieve better outcomes.”

Dave Barwell on…

…Social value

“Our social value policy and established regional social value champions coordinate activities in our business locations. For example, Aecom’s Birmingham office supports Hive College, an educational establishment for students aged 19-25 with learning difficulties or disabilities.”


“Building a more diverse and inclusive business also means making a difference for the women already in our workforce.

…Aecom’s USP

“The range of projects we deliver provide opportunities for our employees to work all over the world and receive on-the-job training – from transport, water, environmental services, place-making to advanced buildings; we understand the entire design and delivery process.”

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