De Rivaz: Diversity, collaboration and adaptation vital for engineering

Article by Helen Tunnicliffe

THE engineering profession will need to adapt to an ever-changing world in the coming years, and at the centre of its transformation will be diversity and collaboration, according to former EDF Energy CEO Vincent de Rivaz.

De Rivaz was speaking at the Royal Academy of Engineering’s (RAEng’s) 2017 Hinton Lecture, at its headquarters, Prince Philip House in London, UK, on 21 November. The Hinton Lecture is held annually in memory of a former RAEng president, Lord Hinton of Bankside, who supervised the building of the UK’s first nuclear power station in the 1950s before becoming an active member of the House of Lords. De Rivaz’ lecture was entitled The nature of engineering in a fast-changing world.

“It is an exciting time to be an engineer. Our world is changing fast, with new technologies and new opportunities,” de Rivaz said.

De Rivaz himself is a hydroelectric engineer by training. After training in Grenoble, he joined EDF in 1977, with a varied 40-year career which took him to China before coming back to Europe. He was managing director of hydro power from 1991-4, before moving on to be the deputy head of EDF’s international division. He became deputy chief financial officer in 1999 and director of financial strategy in 2000, before being made chief executive of London Electricity Group in 2002. He oversaw its merger with Seeboard and Eastern Network to form EDF Energy in 2003 and then the incorporation of British Energy, the UK nuclear operator, into the company in 2009. He stepped down as CEO in 2017 after spearheading work to build the UK’s first new nuclear reactor in more than two decades, Hinkley Point C.

He recalled a recent speech in which he had imagined EDF Energy in 2033. Engineering, he said, will be at the heart of the company’s transformation.

“We have a common enemy in climate change, we have a common goal in security of supply, and we have a common duty to deliver reliable, low-carbon electricity, in a way which is affordable. To address this challenge, engineers and society must work hand-in-glove,” he said. “A digital and interconnected world needs engineers.”

In the future, there will be more decentralised generation and consumption, while smart meters are already being rolled out in to ever-more connected homes. Low-carbon nuclear energy will remain essential. Fewer plants will be built and more large plants will be decommissioned. Artificial intelligence, advanced communications, big data and new data handling techniques will have a “staggering” impact on the world. Factories, supply chains, energy generation and storage will be automated.

As a result of this there will be huge impact on society, throwing up ethical issues, but de Rivaz warned that technology and artificial intelligence should not and could not entirely replace humans. Engineering will become more interdisciplinary, with the RAEng Fellows of the future drawn from many more different disciplines, including from areas not even thought of yet.

Engineers must adapt and change to new ways of thinking, and promote innovation and technology as a “force for good”. While de Rivaz has spent 40 years with just one company, he warned that this is no longer the way of the world, and the engineers of today and tomorrow will need to be prepared to move and develop new skills.

The UK alone will need an extra 1.8m engineers in the coming decade, and how to fill this skills gap is an issue that must be addressed. Diversity and inclusion, he said will be key.

“Diversity and inclusion foster innovation by broadening perspectives and ideas. Diversity and inclusion are also key to productivity,” he said.

De Rivaz said that a diverse and inclusive workforce helps to make people happier and more motivated. Bonds between management, engineers and staff are strengthened and everyone can feel pride in their team.

Increasing diversity is already a priority for EDF Energy. Its “Pretty Curious” programme to encourage girls to consider STEM subjects at schools reached more than 1,000 in 2016 and will reach a similar number in 2017. More than 500,000 visitors, including families and school groups, have been to EDF’s seven UK visitor centres. Changes are already being seen in EDF Energy’s apprenticeship scheme. In 2015, just 8% of its apprentices were female. In 2016, this climbed to 22%, and in 2017, 35% of apprentices were female.

De Rivaz conceded, however, that there is more to be done.

As well as diversity along lines such as gender and race, collaboration amongst engineering and scientific disciplines is also vital, and is already having an impact on EDF Energy’s flagship Hinkley Point C project. Digital design engineers build each part virtually before it is built physically. If design engineers are isolated, de Rivaz said, they tend towards over-complication and over-emphasise safety, making construction difficult, causing delays and increasing the cost. By working with EDF’s other engineering teams, they have been able to develop designs which use 20% less steel and concrete than initial estimates, without compromising safety, but making the facility much easier to build and get right first time.

Engineers need to “build bridges with people, not just for people”, and social action is already at the heart of EDF Energy’s sustainable strategy, for example in supporting charities helping young people to make a difference in their communities and fulfil their potential.

Engineers will have many challenges to face over the coming years. Globalisation, said de Rivaz, should be seen as an opportunity to share ideas, expertise and culture, allowing economies to flourish. Engineers will have to be problem-solvers, not least in the coming digital revolution, which must improve, rather than impede, relationships between industry and its customers, increasing accessibility and accountability. To get the digital transformation right, the human must be put at the heart of technologies.

“This fast-paced environment with emerging technologies gives the chance to make a real impact on society,” said de Rivaz. “Times are changing, and so is the nature of engineering. To succeed in this new world as engineers, we must be innovative, strong communicators, and be ready to adapt. We must explore new ways of thinking, we must embrace diversity and inclusion, to open our minds to new ideas, ways of working, and new possibilities. And we must expand our horizons, build new relationships.”

De Rivaz concluded that engineers cannot operate in a silo but must involve society and the wider community, to help ensure that society respects the work of engineers.

“Engineers must play their part in educating society about the role they play in improving lives for all to ensure that engineering remains at the heart of society, and that the voice of engineers is heard,” he said.

Article by Helen Tunnicliffe

Senior reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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