Q&A: Nathan Marsh, Costain – “digital by default”

Earlier in August, Costain launched its digital services hub, bringing all of its digital capability under one umbrella. BIM+ asked Nathan Marsh, appointed Costain’s chief digital officer a year ago, about the hub and the challenges he’s encountered so far and his hopes for the hub, Costain and the industry.

Before you joined Costain, what was your experience of construction and what were your thoughts about the level of digital engagement you would find?

I have watched and closely engaged with the construction sector for about eight years, both at EY then at Atkins, offering deal advisory, business case advice, strategic programme assurance and delivery services on major construction schemes, then evolving in to providing digital and data support to infrastructure delivery and operations, driving digital into the heart of UK’s Critical National Infrastructure (CNI). 

I have seen the sector evolve from a very capital-intensive, inputs-, cost- and ‘conventional methods and materials’-focused sector into a more progressive and enlightened sector that is starting to embrace, on a more wholesale basis, modern methods of construction, new synthetic and composite materials and is moving towards a ‘digital by default’ sector and supporting ecosystem. 

Our sector has also embraced the green and sustainability agenda, with firms like Costain committing to net zero targets as well as social value commitments in all we do.

This is part of the inclusive and sustainable growth I joined Costain to lead, and it’s great to see it happening here and across our sector.

What’s been the most challenging part of your first year in the role?

For Costain and our clients, covid-19 has been an unforeseen and massive challenge that we and the industry have risen to. 

The profoundly difficult operating and trading conditions made me and my fellow executive board members rapidly review the business we are, and the business we do. From that challenge has come a forced acceleration of the move to digital ways of working, which is having positive benefits, helping us deliver our complex infrastructure projects more quickly and more safely. 

As we emerge from lockdown into ‘new normal’ ways of working, our clients are looking for help to navigate these changes and drive to capitalise on these efficiencies.

I’m incredibly proud of how we have managed the headwind Covid-19 gave us, and we now emerge stronger, leaner and fitter than before. 

Outside of the pandemic, it’s been great to see the digital acceleration across Costain as we unlock the potential and connect the inspiring digital services and solutions we have, grow them, connect them and add to them as part of our journey to being truly ‘digital by default’.

This hasn’t been easy, and nor should it, but the digitisation of our services and our business is happening: it’s unstoppable, and it’s also absolutely crucial to our ongoing relevance and growth as a key driver of UK economic activity.

The digitisation of our services and our business is happening: it’s unstoppable, and it’s also absolutely crucial to our ongoing relevance and growth as a key driver of UK economic activity.– Nathan Marsh

What has surprised you the most about your first year at Costain and its clients’ engagement with digital construction?

I have been surprised by the amount and frequency of brilliant, innovative and disruptive digital ideas, services and progress across Costain and across our sector.

Our teams clearly recognise the urgent need to redefine how we plan, design, deliver and operate national infrastructure, which is a fantastic position and mindset to have. 

Better organisation of these is now needed, as is taking a more ‘advanced manufacturing’ approach, where we drive rapid prototyping, testing, trialling and deployment with in-life upgrades to digital delivery tools and systems. 

The positive surprise has been to uncover the examples of the great work that has been delivered by Costain for clients where our digital and engineering expertise has come together to deliver great value, underpinned by strong operational expertise – the perfect mix. 

The digital hub and our Costain digital organisation exists to bring that expertise together and applying the best of our digital thinking and digital tools to the challenges of each and every one of our clients.

Why has Costain put all its digital expertise and services under the umbrella of the hub?

Our digital hub is a very deliberate move, to show the power of harnessing our suite of digital services and capabilities into one, interactive hub. 

It acts as an aggregator to help clients and partners discover how we can help. 

But it’s a hub that reaches out across every single service and person at Costain. It represents our shift to a ‘digital by default’ core that underpins all our services, delivery and thinking – something we all need in 2020. 

It’s harnessing power helps us industrialise digital and innovation, and also shows our sector that ‘creating once and using and evolving many times’ beats the inefficiency of ‘creating many times and using once’.  Bringing together and collaborating on technologies is a vital step in progressing and accelerating digital, with clear focus and always going a little further every time.

What are the key timelines or objectives for Costain to be ‘digital by default’?

I think this term is helpful for us and clients. It reveals the absolute commitment to being ready for the future and powered, but not dictated to, by technology. 

2020 marks the start of our most digital decade in the history of humanity: that’s quite a big deal, and something I want Costain and our sector to take seriously. 

For us, ‘digital by default’ means first we are leveraging technology to support how we deliver services to clients, embodied by our Smart Delivery Platform that accelerates delivery through data analytics, automation and uses code to assess project risks and out-turns, all under the supervision of our fantastic people who then use this insight to make programme and infrastructure operation choices. Basically it’s a digital project management office with true foresight.

Second, we leverage technology to support what we deliver to clients, embodied by our development and deployment of extended reality, digital twin, digital CCTV analytics, 24/7 service desk, GIS & drone services, ANNIE (our democratised deep learning AI platform), U-Route (which helps navigate the optimal pathway for physical assets like railways, roads and pipelines), and predictive analytics to name a few.

And third, we are rapidly digitising Costain: this is a vital enabler to power the growth of our digital services. We are:

  • accelerating our robotics programme across core functions, 
  • using AI and predictive modelling to help optimise our supply chain and commodities pricing, 
  • attracting new, disruptive and exciting talent that embodies our digitisation, and 
  • driving a digital dexterity and skills programme to evolve us all into digitally literate and savvy partners to help clients solve their most pressing and complex problems. 

So, ‘digital by default’ is what we do, it is who we are and it will define who we will be: it’s incredibly exciting and I am passionate about this part of our journey.

How many technology partners does Costain currently have and how much is that supply chain likely to grow in the short-term?

Costain has a diverse supply chain to support our digital offerings that we are continually reviewing and expanding. 

These relationships support our client delivery, growth and our own evolution. Our innovation team focuses on incubators and micro-SMEs that we look to help grow in the digital space. 

We have about 25 technology partners, but we would like about 50 of a diverse and really disruptive, as well as proven, nature. Size, skill, ethos, geography, and ambition are all important to us. If they can share our vision for ‘improving people’s lives’, I’m sure we will get along just fine. 

We would like about 50 technology partners of a diverse and really disruptive, as well as proven, nature. Size, skill, ethos, geography, and ambition are all important to us.– Nathan Marsh

What process does Costain go through to ensure digital solutions are "robust and resilient"?

With the digitisation of CNI, systemic resilience is absolutely critical to ensure these networks are robust and secure. 

We have deep experience and capability in systems engineering, cyber and safety engineering that we apply across our digital solutions. 

We are also investing further both in our Costain cyber-defences and in our advisory expertise to support clients in maintaining their own resilience against an increasing threat landscape.

We partner with resilient partners and our relationship and work with government clients reinforces the trust placed in us – something we take very seriously and responsibly.  

What service or product are you looking for that you haven’t yet found?

I’m watching the growing use of blockchain, and the sheer power and pace of quantum computing in design, delivery, operation and commercialisation of UK CNI. I have my own ideas of how these can be used to drive mutual advantage, but I’d welcome a conversation with readers who want to discuss this!

What can you tell us of any further developments you are working on?

We are absolutely focusing on growing our market-leading digital twin and digital asset optimisation capabilities. 

Our role in the Centre for Digital Built Britain and our core software development capabilities give us the reach, influence and firepower to deliver these services with leadership. 

We predict these will be core to UK infrastructure from now on. We are also developing our machine-learning capability to help drive autonomy, pace, accuracy and reassurance to infrastructure delivery and operation. 

Costain is getting fit for our digital decade – and we’d love to hear how you are doing…

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