In Perspectives we ask the most insightful voices in infrastructure for their take on the issues and challenges facing the industry. 

This month, Copper Consultancy’s Senior Account Manager Fiona Woolston talks to Mott MacDonald’s Executive Director for External Engagement, Professor Denise Bower OBE. Denise joined the Mott MacDonald Executive Board as Group External Engagement Director in January 2020. She is responsible for client and partner relationships, coordination of thought leadership and driving improvements in the delivery of major projects. Denise has had an impressive career in the infrastructure industry. She is well known through her role as the executive director of the Major Projects Association and as a Professor in the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Leeds. She was a long-standing member of the Infrastructure Client Group and has worked closely with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority to improve major project initiation and delivery.

We asked Denise about global learning, corporate purpose and the value of authenticity in business.


As a global company, did Mott MacDonald’s worldwide ethos support operations in the UK, as Covid-19 pushed the implementation of new ways of working?

Mott MacDonald’s international planning was certainly helped by the fact that different parts of the business had already experienced lockdown. Our offices across Asia were very supportive in sharing their experiences of reopening, remote working and the practical support required. Unlike other crises, the fact that this was a truly global event also meant we were all learning together, which has really helped the business following the uncertainty the UK faced back in March.


What innovations has Motts implemented in the UK because of this learning?

Thankfully, we already had a pandemic response plan that made us well-equipped to embrace change and innovation, supported by our digital infrastructure. We are planning to retain online meetings by default to cut carbon emissions and increase participation and inclusivity, something that proved particularly successful for our recent AGM. We’ve also been able to streamline company objectives and open up training and development across all our international geographies – that’s really helped us further embrace the ethos of diversity and inclusion that we take pride in as an employee-owned company.


What do you believe are the long-term impacts of these changes to Mott MacDonald’s operations in the UK and abroad?

Cutting carbon, like all our initiatives, fundamentally comes back to how we are defining our purpose as a company, specifically promoting and enacting positive social outcomes. And this extends wider than just our business – the legacy of recovery should be in shifting conversations – from projects and programmes being ‘shovel ready’ to ‘shovel worthy’; talking about improving education rather than building schools; discussing health rather than hospitals; and moving from the projects we work on to the way we benefit communities.


Some companies in the infrastructure and development sector do not operate globally. To help the sector thrive in the UK post-Covid, how can we share best practice from around the world?

I can’t help but reflect on my experience at the Major Projects Association (MPA) and the legacy work we did. Industry bodies such as the MPA are helping to lead on the transfer of organisational learning and Mott MacDonald is very supportive of this. The MPA has already published a paper that we have responded to. Online forums are also a great way to share expertise. Our teams regularly exchange perspectives on globally significant issues such as pandemic resilience and decarbonisation. For me, it’s all about bringing people together to share ideas in an active way.


Has the pandemic made Mott MacDonald reflect on what they stand for, and how they affect both their employees and the public?

The pandemic has made us reflect on the importance of our core values rather than change them. By considering social outcomes in everything we do, we are better equipped to help address the health, economic and societal rifts that Covid-19 and other pressures have exposed. Our position papers on Mott MacDonald’s advocacy of net zero and positive social outcomes contain practical steps we are taking to enable progress and what we want to be held accountable for by both our clients and the general public as our society recovers.


How can companies with similar ambitions to Mott MacDonald prove that they are truly authentic and reflective of their actions in the real world?

They need to ensure that the prominence of the journey they are on matches the scale of their ambitions. For example, Mott MacDonald has been investing in social inclusion specialists and developing relevant skills in our staff for the last three to four years. We created a new global social practice with five hundred members in more than 35 countries. We have developed a social outcomes framework to embed inclusion into our project planning and delivery processes so that it is not an add-on or optional service, and through our social transformation model we support colleagues to identify actions that can be taken at each stage of a project to maximise the benefits we deliver for people.

As a company, Mott MacDonald is committed to supporting the delivery of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and we take pride in our efforts to support our clients in delivering the positive social outcomes they’re passionate about like equality, diversity, accessibility, participation, social care, women’s empowerment and girls’ education.

Actionable deadlines are also important. For example, Motts has committed to incorporating questions about the delivery of social outcomes into the interviewing process by 2022.


 Is it challenging to prove that you are authentic when you are perceived as ‘corporate’, and if so, how can this specific challenge be overcome?

There is certainly a balancing act between control and self-organisation. The pandemic has highlighted key challenges that we need to educate ourselves on, particularly as we still know that diversity is a challenge across the infrastructure and development sectors. The focus needs to be on filling gaps in our understanding through active and inclusive engagement with all our staff, and providing them with opportunities to advocate for issues close to their hearts. We have a CSR strategy but leave it to local offices’ discretion where they want to volunteer. What’s important is that, whilst trusting our local offices to make informed decisions on how they best give back to their community, we support them wherever we can.


 Finally, Mott MacDonald is an employee-owned company. What effect has the pandemic had on this arrangement and vice versa, and what lessons does it have for the wider infrastructure and development sector?

The benefits of an employee-owned company are that everyone feels as if they have a long-term investment in the future success of the business, both professionally and financially. It also helps unify the company around things like our core principle of delivering positive social outcomes or our strategy for net zero, as well as allowing us to adapt faster to changes brought on by events like Covid-19.

Ultimately, our standout lesson from Covid-19 as an employee-owned business is the importance of having the longer-term outcome as a reference point – for us that is improving society. This is true for the industry as well, when you need to make decisions at speed, understanding the value you need to deliver for the user is critical.