Change Leader Interview: City Plans Undergo Stress-Testing for Sustainability
Donna Huey is a senior vice president and client technology and innovation director for Atkins. With extensive experience in consulting related to technology selection, development and implementation, Huey also chairs the company’s technical network that focuses on successful integration of digital solutions for Atkins and its clients.
She has brought her particular expertise in geographic information systems to bear on projects ranging from transportation-management systems to floodplain delineation and mapping programs. Huey has a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of South Florida and was named as an Atkins Fellow in 2014.
I2: Have you done more to formalize the Atkins approach to how you assist cities in coping with change?
Huey: We have. Most of our efforts have now been pulled into an updated value proposition for our customers that we call “stress testing,” where we’re looking at how to apply the process of evaluating different master-planning scenarios to validate the least-risk/highest-reward environment.
Cities have different goals. Some might be trying to just have economic stability, and some might be trying to address environmental issues. Whatever the goals or objectives are, the stress-testing process and some of the tools we’ve developed to support that are really the next generation of master planning. It’s come about in the last six to eight months.
I2: Does it involve a bit of a scorecard or report card on how well cities are doing now?
Huey: We typically start the process with a report card, because many cities still need that high-level assessment of where they stand today. We start with a look at key issues and giving them a good baseline. Then that report card forms the basis for collecting feedback from stakeholders on potential solutions. You have all the challenges, and you also have opportunities. When you put those together, then we can look for what the right solutions are. Solutions form a plan, and you can have a number of variations of that plan. Each one of those variations could potentially produce different results.
So we start with a report card, and then we go into the assessment and end up in a handful of scenarios that we use in a workshop process and stress test.
I2: Resilience is a buzzword now. In my observations, the coastal cities seem to be more motivated given threats from sea-level rise. What are you seeing in terms of drivers for this next-generation master planning, and are there any stand-out motivators for cities?
Huey: There’s a lot of new interest embodied in the term resilience in respect to cyber. We are seeing that swiftly emerging as a pillar under the resilience heading. You have environmental, socioeconomic and climate-change issues. With cyber resilience, you’re not just protecting your natural environment and infrastructure, but you’re also protecting from cyber attacks as well.
I2: That ties into our more-connected infrastructure. I know there have been some attacks on dams and other critical infrastructure.
Huey: It’s pretty scary. It’s great that the infrastructure can talk to each other and talk to us, and we can even answer each other. The move toward self-healing materials and networks is coming along. But it’s all pretty vulnerable to attack. I think the amount we don’t know with respect to our vulnerabilities is what’s scariest for owners and operators.
I2: What types of tools are you employing? The last time we spoke, we touched on BIM and its evolution to become an asset-management tool. Does much of your work involve the integration of BIM and other data feeds like GIS to provide a better understanding?
Huey: This is still a struggle for many of our clients. There are a lot of good products out there, so when we engage with our clients, the software product mixture differs. Usually the benefits and outcomes these systems are driving toward are similar. Our focus and methodology puts the data at the logical center and builds around those data.
We’re doing some projects that we call Scan to BIM and BIM to AIM. Scan to BIM really helps our clients capture as-built asset information with advanced laser-scanning technologies and drones. That feeds straight into a BIM model that can be attributed with asset information.
There’s some good work that we’ve done recently with Heathrow Airport in a tunnel system. This Scan to BIM project helped them tag assets with attribute information for operations and maintenance.
We did another interesting Scan to BIM project for slightly different outcomes in Miami with a large private developer. They were putting a building in adjacent to a Metro station and had to capture all the intricacies of designing around that. The scanning was able to go straight into a BIM model, which then directly informed the design. It significantly impacted not only the speed of the analysis, but it also allowed them to discover conflicts very early in the process to save time and money.
On the BIM to AIM side, that market is still maturing, and one of the things that we’ve recognized is a lack of demonstrable examples that exist in our infrastructure industry that are proving the results. We’ve started launching some of our own internal proof-of-concept projects.
For example, one of our office locations in need of a new floor fit out. We’re taking it upon ourselves to do the entire BIM design with a progression to an Asset Information Model that can be turned over to the operator for optimizing the energy efficiency and maintenance on the building.
There is a lot going in the integration space as we can better realize this data continuum across the whole of the project life cycle. It’s always been a passion of mine to see this data continuum persist and drive value.
I2: I appreciate how there are more dashboards and reporting mechanisms to give a more-holistic picture–many are putting a focus on monitoring with sensors. Is that something you’ve gotten involved in?
Huey: I haven’t been, personally involved in a project, but this is certainly a big area of interest. Many of our clients are still putting all these pieces together. That’s why we’re taking on some proofs of concepts to fill some gaps.
We are doing some work in the U.K. with buildings and well briefings, where we’re looking at a healthy and productive environment in buildings and monitoring that. Energy efficiency in buildings is probably the most mature in this area of measurement, and optimizing equipment and building design. There is a lot of analysis in that space that can be leveraged.
I2: Is risk–and monitoring exposure to risk–a big driver in this type of advancement?
Huey: A lot of it comes down to money. You still have to maintain aging infrastructure but with limited budget. You want to manage risk, limit exposure and certainly avoid catastrophic loss. There’s always a tradeoff. The classic example is sea-level rise. It is hard to conceive of the cost or implications of building a 20-foot floodwall along Miami Beach but that doesn’t mean the city isn’t always assessing this risk. The risk vs. rewards isn’t there. It is about constantly looking at risk, but also balancing that with what makes sense.
I2: Do you get into the design of green infrastructure and how natural processes can help us while keeping costs in check?
Huey: One of our foremost experts is a gentleman by the name of Dan Medina. He’s another Atkins Fellow. He spends a lot of his time in that space on low-impact development and green infrastructure. That definitely plays into our thought process.
Early in our conversation, I talked about stress testing and the whole risk/reward tradeoff. That’s really what that’s about, because you can really minimize risk by interjecting green infrastructure solutions. You can interject systematic operations and maintenance practices, or you can introduce other physical countermeasures like sea walls. The right mix of those solutions is what we’re after to optimize conditions.
We look at all of the different ways, whether green or grey or just policy. We help work through the right mix that will provide a solution.
I2: In term of the kind of things that you direct cities to undertake, can you provide some examples of solutions for transportation?
Huey: We look at it from an intermodal perspective. We look at the most-efficient ways to move people. One place really holding promise that we haven’t pushed into our future-proofing yet, but we’re spending a lot of research and developing products, is the intelligent-mobility space. We are trying to get to the heart of the end user.
We look at the way an end user uses the transportation network around them; the way they start their day; the paths, modes and how they move. Improving the efficiency of not only their travel, but also the transportation network.
As we start to learn more about the patterns of the end users of the transportation network, then the folks that own and operate the network can better optimize so they don’t have to build a new road and just need to better manage the flow of their customers using the road system they have.
We’re starting to learn more about the customer experience with the transportation network and are beginning to spot patterns and trends and predict behaviors so we can bring that back into future-proofing to be a smarter and more-sustainable city.
If my transportation provider knows that I use a specific route at a specific time, it can alert me to anything that’s gone wrong before it impacts me. Letting me delay or take a different route reduces frustration and improves efficiency. We create happier customers and a more-productive environment.
I2: Do you glean a lot of good insight from Europe and elsewhere that you then bring to the North American market?
Huey: We have some great new ways of working that we’ve been experimenting with over the past year that are proving fruitful for our clients. In the fall, we did a New York and London re-routing event where we had a simultaneous thought-leadership event between those two cities. We had a group in a theater in the UK and another in a theater in New York, and we were able to bounce back and forth.
We had some of our clients present their latest thinking on what’s happening in the connected and autonomous vehicle space, in the Internet of Things and in Big Data all around the transportation space. It was a great way to have a discussion forum among a diverse set of stakeholders and clients. The exposure coming from different environments and locations was well received.
Another thing we’re doing is what we call Rapid Start or Co-Creation events, where we base a team in one location and we’ll stand up satellite teams in two or three other geographies. We’ll give the entire global team a challenge statement coming from the client, and oftentimes the client is participating with us. The problem statement will be worked by the local team as well as teams in the other geographies at the same time. You get this great influx of different ideas on how to approach the problem, and we have found real gems in that dialog and thought process between the different locations.
I2: Is there a growing urgency in some of these solutions?
Huey: One area which is commanding greater urgency is in our U.S. low-lying coastal cities. We used to look at 100-year storms and 500-year storms and managing to those factors. Now, with projected sea-level rise of one foot up to six feet, it’s become harder to plan. For example, if you look at just the one-foot and a 100-year storm for the 2050 horizon, you are looking at a much higher surge than the current 500-year flood forecast. This makes traditionally basic engineering analysis like freeboard height suddenly more complex when you are trying to get that risk/reward balance right.
I2: The concept of Future Proofing must be hard in that context. Do you typically look 100 years into the future?
Huey: When we do our simulation analysis with our City Simulator, we are usually looking at a 40- to 50-year horizon. We can run the algorithms further into the future, but it does depend on how much historical data you have in a particular location. How far out you can go before you lose accuracy is dependent on the data. Generally, for some of the planning horizons that we’re working with and the studies that we’re doing, it’s in the 40- to 50-year range.
I2: Another tricky element in this planning revolves around either retrofitting or starting anew. Is more effort going into retrofits these days?
Huey: That’s an interesting question. One of the things that’s been on my mind recently is all this new technology that allows our infrastructure to last longer. That may not always be our goal to have infrastructure that lasts 100 years vs. 50 or even 20 years. We may want to design infrastructure that is highly adaptable and flexible. It’s a question worth pondering.
A new build will allow you to use some advanced materials that can give you a higher degree of energy efficiency at lower cost. But retrofitting holds opportunities of lowering costs and buying more time to see how some of these new technologies mature. More time also will allow climate science to advance with better and more-accurate information to plan from. There’s no right answer to the question of new or retrofit at this time. Again, it’s back to the proper mix of risk vs. reward.