In a changing industry, the role of young professionals is becoming ever more crucial. Andy Walker, editor at Infrastructure Intelligence, spoke to Dr Marzia Bolpagni, associate director at Mace and current ACE Emerging Professional of the Year, about her thoughts on the year ahead in an interview published on International Women's Day (#IWD2022).
Marzia Bolpagni is someone who is clear about her ideas and where the industry in which she works is headed. Asked about the key trends and developments that emerging professionals should focus on in 2022, she highlights a number of areas to keep abreast of. “Sustainability will definitely be a key issue over the coming year. Also, the ethical use of technology, especially artificial intelligence (AI). We can see that there is an emerging trend of the adoption of machine learning techniques and AI, but technology is not neutral, so we need to ensure that we use it and data for the public good.
“‘Platformisation’ is also important – how do you create an off-site module using modern methods of construction? The platform approach looks at other industries, such as the manufacturing sector, to learn lessons, formulate an approach and standardise requirements. It’s important that emerging professionals are aware of these different ways of working because we can’t really improve our sector if we don’t rethink how we deliver our buildings and infrastructure.”
Keeping ahead of new trends
Bolpagni thinks that another emerging trend is smart contracts, blockchain and NFTs (non-fungible tokens), which are starting to change other sectors and are likely to impact the construction industry too. “The automation of repetitive tasks is more and more common in our industry. We also need to keep an eye on what’s happening in the metaverse and the trends around ‘deep work’, a way of working where activities are performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits. Emerging professionals that want to be successful need to be across all of these issues,” she said.
Another key issue facing the industry currently, according to Bolpagni, centres around skills and the capacity of consultancy firms to train their young professionals in a way that equips them for the challenges and opportunities of a changing industry.
“There is a need for new skills in the sector, especially in the post-Covid environment, and people leaving university don’t necessarily have them and it’s hard to find companies that will upskill people in a way that gives them experience of non-traditional working,” she said. “Finding the right environment to express themselves is a challenge for emerging professionals but we need to provide this if we are to hold onto them.” Says Bolpagni.
As we know, the pandemic has had a profound effect on everyone who works in the construction sector and digital has really come to the fore. What does Bolpagni think about this and how have recent changes affected emerging professionals? “The pandemic showed how digital capabilities are important in order to allow us to continue working and I think that emerging professionals are well placed here as they have the digital skills that are needed,” she said.
“It has also been possible to work for different companies from anywhere. There is of course a negative to all this, in that in an in-person environment you can learn more and when you’re working in isolation it is more difficult to progress and develop your career. So, we need to interact more to learn more quickly and engage with colleagues,” says Bolpagni.
She also believes that the role of emerging professionals will be pivotal around the net zero issue, given that they have the most to gain from building a sustainable world. “Our sector is responsible for more than 40% of CO2 so it really has a big impact on the sustainability and climate change agenda. My hope for 2022 is that our construction sector becomes recognised as a leader in driving down emissions and achieving net zero. Emerging professionals will have a key role in this area for sure,” she said.
Attracting new talent
In terms of the new talent needed to drive ahead with issues like net zero and climate change, how does Bolpagni think that the industry can do better in attracting that new talent and ensuring a more diverse sector? “We need to work more closely with students in universities and inspire them. Our sector offers fantastic opportunities, making a real difference to people’s lives.
“We need to attract new talent and we need a more diverse workforce. That’s why I’ve become a STEM ambassador. We also need to experience diversity in order to understand better what needs to be done - we must speak up in favour of diversity and also call out negative behaviours and terminology. Unconscious bias is also an issue and we need to address it,” she said.
As someone who was named as the Emerging Professional of the Year [at ACE's Consultancy and Engineering Awards], what responsibility does she feel to help make change happen? “I was really honoured to receive the award and I will continue to work to fill the gap between academia and industry and also to pursue a sustainable approach. That is my vision. We have to inspire the next generation to join our industry and make a difference. It’s an industry that changes lives and we want people to work in it,” Bolpagni says.
This interview was originally published on Infrastructure Intelligence to coincide with International Women's Day 2022. Read Marzia's piece published as part of Cutting Through the Hype, a report and folllow-up blogs exploring digital transformation. Find out more about ACE's Consultancy and Engineering Awards 2021. Come back soon for news on this year's awards.