Linda Miller OBE, lead engineer at Bechtel Coporation, the largest construction company in the United States, and currently the Director of Construction on the Sydney Metro project (Australia’s largest transportation project to-date) was in Colombo in November 2018 to present the 12th International Brunel Lecture. Her lecture, titled “Transportation Infrastructure and Interdisciplinary Interfaces on Complex Mega Projects”, celebrates the bicentennial of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Following the lecture, which covered her experience of 25 years and unusual lessons learnt, Miller met with Echelon for a brief conversation on the future of the construction industry.

How is transportation construction changing now, and working with other disciplines?
First, it’s data. Earlier, when we thought transportation, we thought ticket gate to ticket gate. But now, the idea of transportation is changing to become door to door. Computers give us customer information on how systems work and how they connect to the ones we’re developing. For example, how do we make transportation easier for a person who cycles to a train station, parks their bike there and then takes the train?

It’s also other industries. I am proud to say that we have built for the first time ever, on the Sydney metro, a solar farm that harnesses Australia’s brilliant sunshine to provide all the electric power. Back in the day, we would have thought “that’s not transport, we’re transport people. Leave the electric power to the electric power people”. But now, it’s more collaborative and responsible where we have built a giant solar farm so we don’t have to take any power off the grid. It’s astonishing.

What are the challenges the construction industry is facing right now, but people haven’t started talking about yet?
In order for construction to be successful, you need many, many people who are good at different trades, whether they are welders, machine operators or carpenters. You need a really nice balance of people who are skilled in those kinds of areas, are getting that kind of training and are growing together with people who are graduating from university with academic qualifications. Without either one of these groups of people, it will be difficult. Adding to that, competition around the world for workers is also a problem in engineering. Being a welder, carpenter or train operator doesn’t seem glamorous, but it is very rewarding when you are building something that is changing people’s lives. Universities are luring people who might become welders or train operators to work on robotics or very sexy AI types of things, and that’s just sad. Someday, that balance is going to fall apart, and that is something we need to be
cautious about.

Finding the right workforce is also becoming a challenge in engineering. Why is this?
One of the problems is that it’s impossible for children to visualize what we do each day. They know what a bridge is, they know what a railway is, but they cannot put themselves in our shoes. They can do so for a doctor because they meet doctors at work, or see doctors on TV. It’s the same with police, teachers and even shop owners. But what we engineers do seems too far away.

What is your average day like?
I don’t know the right answer to that. When we released the movie, “The 15 Billion Pound Railway”, a lot of young girls told me, “Ah! That’s what a day in the life is like.” Some days, I’m at my desk looking at drawings, and other days I’m putting my hard hat on and going out to solve problems.

Most people think of engineering as head-down, solving mathematical problems, but actually, almost all of my day is spent with different teams like geotechnical engineers, electrical engineers or transport planning engineers, trying to think of new ways to solve problems or new ways to do things better. It feels very energetic. A lot of people think engineering is a very quiet, staid, and maybe even a stern job, but it is enthusiastic and involves a lot of laughing, trying to look at the world and technology in entirely new and different ways. We [engineers] are not grabbing hold of technology and making it change the industry as others are.

Following your very brief glimpse of Colombo’s transportation systems, what are your thoughts?
The thing I see in Colombo is the great diversity of modes of transport: bicycles, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, buses, and then we have the train station. I see the potential to have great use of information technology in the industry, but it needs to be done intelligently. It also needs to not forget those people that are vulnerable in our society, whether it’s those who are partially immobile or in a wheelchair, or people like my son who are dyslexic and receive information really well through cartoons and pictorials. It needs to be insightful and really look at the intimate needs of the people who are going to be using these systems.