Inside Arup’s mission to keep pace with ‘exponential impact’ of digital age
While advisory groups the world over scramble to re-position themselves as tech-savvy innovators, Arup has been quietly taking care of business. Here’s a look at what the profitable £1.6bn turnover planning-to-engineering advisory group has been up to as it tries to seed technology throughout its 13,000-strong organisation.
- Arup’s 2018 annual report reads like a tech manifesto, setting out the business case for investing in staff-derived startups, changing culture and piloting digitally enabled projects with willing clients who share the confidence to show tech is more than marketing talk. Chairman Gregory Hodkinson, in his statement, said: “It is clear that we are now entering a period where the impact of digital technology will increase exponentially. This has been driven by a rapid rise in computing power, richer and more widely available data, and fast emerging advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence. We have made significant progress in five important areas: automation, data, digital services, digital products and technology.
- Automation. Arup has introduced an automated process for understanding changes to utilities networks over multiple design iterations across a masterplan, allowing for the continual optimisation of the engineering. “We are now making similar advances across all our operations, focusing on reducing the duplication of our thinking and our work.”
- “Shifting mindsets is a big part of this. While every project is unique, if we are facing a challenge in one location, the chances are someone in our network has a tool or methodology that can help us solve it. We just need to use the new systems available to us, and be more open about sharing and collaborating.”
- Internet of Things allows for a data-driven approach to everything. Abundant live data can lead to better results based on a greater depth of ‘in use’ evidence. For instance, the lighting team tackled the problem of difficulty predicting glare. Using data analysis and machine learning, the team has improved glare predictability from 70% to 90%, Arup claims.
- Products for clients. “We used to build software mainly for internal use – now we are starting to create tools our clients can use themselves. Our SNAPshot Tool is a prime example. Developed by our acoustic consultants, it enables clients to carry out tailored noise modelling and assessments on their projects, allowing them to rapidly undertake ‘what if’ scenarios, improve their decision making, and fast-track approvals.
- Big data and digital mapping large projects for clients such as Dubai International airport. Helps manage risk and improve operations. “Our digital efficiency initiative, ‘RealTime Airport’, gathers, analyses, and shares data from all the airport’s IT systems in real time. This allows staff in any part of the airport to see what’s happening elsewhere, enabling them to react and respond to passenger needs before problems arise. Without building any new facilities, the airport has managed to cut average queuing times in half despite passenger numbers increasing by up to 10% a year.”
- Driverless transport. Arup is also a long-standing technical advisor to London Luton Airport, experiencing 50% increase in passengers since 2014, and now spending £225m on a fully automated, driverless Direct Air to Rail Transit (DART) Once complete, it will run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, reducing travel time and frustration. Arup has also digitally mapped London Heathrow’s entire baggage handling process in one model – “improving efficiency, increasing capacity and offering a better service to 78 million passengers a year.”
- Navigating internal politics to put strategy into action is a major challenge all companies have to address at some stage if they want to adopt a new way of working. Get it on to people;s desks or it means nothing. Arup said setting up a Digital Council was “an important step as it allowed us to coordinate and report on everything we are doing across our operations. We also shared our digital vision with the whole firm and set up a series of ‘conversations’ to outline what we expect from our staff members. This is helping move us from strategy to action – ensuring everyone recognizes the digital opportunities available and makes them part of their daily activity.”
- But it’s the same business underneath, as “it’s important to note that amidst this digital revolution, our business will fundamentally remain the same. It will always be about providing deep technical expertise and innovative solutions to the toughest challenges our clients can throw at us. Digital simply allows us to do that better and faster – producing results that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.”
- Arup Ventures, its in-house venture fund for transforming staff ideas into startup companies, as well as taking stake in external partners, now has 15 ventures to its name and a dedicated team working on deployment and investment.
- The venture team this year agreed its first ‘equity in lieu of fee’ deal with electric charging company Charge, currently installing scooter and bicycle charging stations in cities across the US.
- Other investments made to date from Arup Ventures include a geothermal joint venture company named Geon, and low-energy air conditioning unit Artus
- Virtual highways. Using driver simulations to let people in public consultation stage experience the implications of new roads and layouts. This simulation-based approach was used during the redevelopment of the Grade II listed A487 New Dyfi Bridge in Wales
- Working with manufacturers Jaguar Land Rover, Ford, and Tata, Arup led connected and autonomous vehicle trials on the streets of Milton Keynes and Coventry. The largest trials conducted in the UK to date, they explored the benefits of cars ‘talking’ to each other and their surroundings – with connected traffic lights, emergency vehicle warnings, and emergency braking alerts among the technologies tested. Further trials have now been given the green light.
Bridging the future
- 3D printed bridges and houses. In Amsterdam, Arup used robotic welding to erect a 4,500kg steel pedestrian bridge. In Milan, the company worked with architect CLS to develop Europe’s first 3D-Printed Concrete House. Built on-site using a portable robot, the house showcases how this technology can create complex structures, speed up construction and minimise waste.
- Acoustic impressions. NASA’s aircraft simulation tools generate vast amounts of data, including noise predictions that can serve as the basis for auralizations. Arup’s SoundLab technology allows this information to be realised in 3D, turning silent prediction data into a fullscale acoustic experience that can be heard and felt.
- Designing for net zero. The Bloomberg Center in New York, the first academic building on Cornell Tech’s new 12-acre campus on Roosevelt Island, aspired for net zero carbon emissions and achieved low carbon, gaining LEED ‘Platinum’ certification. Using a campus-wide array of solar panels and ground-source heat pumps, the centre was designed in partnership with Cornell and architecture practice Morphosis.
Some might say Arup would be more inclined to innovate than other firms as its skills and services are aimed at the technical end of the advisory spectrum, compared to say agency and surveying. True or not, there is much to admire in Arup’s end-to-end approach to adopting tech on a daily basis, in and out of the office. And even if it is obvious, that does not make it less difficult to do. The prize for getting it right could be great. Navitas Capital, the US venture capital fund for property and construction, forecasts that those firms which can get a head start on their rivals in the next couple of years will have a decade or more to themselves before they can be caught. Who can catch Arup?