Engineering evolution: Australasian Structural Engineering Conference 2020

17th November 2020


Following the ASEC Conference 2020, we spoke with conference committee member and facilitator Nicolette Cumbo to share further insight into key takeaways from the event.

How did HKA come to be involved in curating and moderating the event?  

I was curious to present a discussion on the construction outlook in Australia (the mega-wave diagram of construction projects to underpin economic stimulus) compared to the documented flat-lined productivity of the construction sector. I sought to frame the conversation around the question of ‘how are we going to meet this expectation.’ As part of our lived experience, COVID-19 added further weight to this proposition.

HKA’s clients share these challenges and choose to partner with us for our unique and integrated approach to supporting project development and delivery excellence. I invited my colleague Carl Chouler, Director Strategy Optimisation, as MC to shape the discussion on where we have come from and what best practice looks like. I was delighted with the really engaging and thoughtful contributions from the panel guests – Marco Assorati, Executive Director at WeBuild, Benita Husband, CEO Pitt&Sherry and Jane MacMaster, Chief Engineer at EA. We explored what we have learnt about ourselves, about our working relationships and what to make of this great opportunity to snap forward.

So what should we do going forward?

  • A focus on people and capability – navigating the changing environment for building skills, knowledge transfer and collaboration through integration of human contact and digital tools
  • Embrace the environment we operate in – engineers will always have a part to play in understanding and responding to complexity and uncertainty
  • Unlock the value of truly collaborative and integrated working relationships – leverage key enablers for innovation and collaboration processes and tools that support culture and behaviour including approach to procurement and choice of contract for clarity on risk allocation and delivery issues management.

How did you initially come to be involved with the Australian College of Structural Engineers?

I have been a volunteer with the Structural Branch of Victoria and National Structural College for some 15 years now since graduating. I have held the positions of Chair of the Structural Branch Vic, acted as Young Engineer and Victorian representative on the Structural College and was the Structural College delegate to the Engineers Australia’s Congress – the advisory body to the EA Board.

What drew me to volunteer was to have access to a wide industry network in Vic and nationally and to be part of conversations on the imperatives of technical excellence in the discipline. My interests expanded to contributing to advocacy and policy positions of EA in relation to engineering education, identifying and delivering professional development, influencing the public image of engineering leadership and supporting a more collaborative and diverse culture that draws the community of practice together in work and for knowledge sharing.

The 2020 conference was 2 years in the making, initially as a face to face event in Melbourne that was shifted to online due to COVID-19. It was a collaborative partnership between the Structural Branch Vic, local industry representatives and the EA Conference Secretariat.

The committee was very eager to unpack the topic of “Engineering Evolution” promoting both reflection and future visioning in curating the conference, inviting papers and engaging an international audience. The global pivot in response to the COVID-19 pandemic was met with renewed gusto by the committee as it made the reflection and future visioning questions more tangible, and also provided a context of ‘anything is possible’. Thanks to the unified efforts of the team and we were able to deepen conversations on our purpose as Structural Engineers in the engineering and construction sector to explore legacy, innovation and shock recovery.

What were the key takeaways and themes from this year’s conference as a whole?

I was really inspired listening to the transport infrastructure technical presentations. There is a strong drive to embrace complexity, test and challenge the bounds of our thinking and tools, and to engage in optimising design and construction as a collective. An amazing sample of case studies was presented, from the mega to the remedial or minor works – with legacy, sustainability and constructability being the key elements to achieving wholistic outcomes over the project and asset lifecycle.

The panel discussion “Pandemic Shock – do we snap back or snap forward panel” really energised the end of Day 1 taking a helicopter view of our industry, current realities and outlook. I was impressed by the breadth of opportunities and challenges discussed, and the tangible outcomes of “never wasting a good crisis” to unlock barriers in approach and processes, and pivot our industry so that we can harness potential.

Innovation was the thread that linked all of the streams and topics across the three days. This insight resonated with me in the context of embedding innovation as a process that drives team culture and performance in achieving the project goal. There is much value that can be derived from a structured innovation process that is both ‘inward’ focused on the project/product and related commercial outcomes, as well as ‘outward’ focused on enhancing the capability and capacity of the profession and making a contribution to the betterment of community outcomes by the sector.

Great insights and perspectives from leading industry experts Jane MacMaster, Benita Husband and Marco Assorati. The pandemic has been unprecedented in creating a one-world problem, impacting us all. We have all had to adjust how we go about our work. On the whole, our sector has been very fortunate during the crisis and we had the opportunity to assess the impacts and share our different perspectives.

We talked harnessing potential, developing capability, managing complexity and delivering excellence by doing more of the right things at the right time. Some of the key takeaways are that we should be doing more systems thinking, recognising the importance of local, integrated workforce, invest in skills training and ensuring early involvement of constructors to get solutions right first time.

Carl Chouler, Panel moderator and HKA Project Director

About the Author: Nicolette Cumbo is a Senior Consultant in the Victoria Advisory Team. She has led multiple initiatives that have achieved business improvement and change in the ports, transport, water, waste resource recovery and affordable housing sectors and has delivered procurement, contract and delivery strategies, and culture, safety and risk management outcomes on a range of complex and political or commercially sensitive projects.

Please reach out to Nicolette in our Melbourne office, if you would like to discuss this article or hear more about HKA’s Advisory Services in Victoria.


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