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How I found my voice

10 July 2019

Arup engineer Stephen Thompson won the 2019 James Rennie Medal for his report on The Ocado Project. He tells us how the experience gave him the confidence to make his voice heard.

How I found my voice
James Rennie 2019 winner Stephen Thompson

Allow me to take you back to the very first few moments of my James Rennie presentation.

My knees are shaking, my mouth's dry, and my heart rate's like it's my weekly circuits class.

I'm not a natural public speaker, so these are the nervous moments I try to prepare for with plenty of hours of practice in front of a mirror, a bit of mindful visualisation and some inspirational reading matter.

Ultimately though on the day, for me, it boils down to plenty of courage, good luck and just going for it.

Once I eased into my presentation, I started to feel more settled and somewhat strangely enjoying it.

A career highlight

It may not visually come across, but as I was standing at the lectern talking about my experience working on the Ocado project, I cheekily allowed myself to try to take a moment to take this career highlight in.

Here I was, standing in one of the most historic lecture theatres in London, if not the engineering world, with my family, friends and close colleagues smiling back at me.

In quite the contrast, the remainder of the audience sat there with a variety of mouths open, deep contemplation and in some cases, amazement. I felt it to be a very flattering moment.

How digital has evolved the engineer

For those of you who are reading this and who haven’t seen my winning presentation, I had some very strong examples of creating state-of-the-art custom digital technology to solve advanced unique engineering problems.

This digital skill set, which I successfully developed for this project, based on strong fundamental traditional engineering principles, underpinned my James Rennie story. Engineers should be leading and driving digital change within our society.

The traditional role of the engineer has continued to evolve and iterate throughout history. I feel that what underpins our invaluable unique skill set is strong technical principles and wider social values.

However, I feel to continue to remain prominent in our society and be a positive impact, I need to continue to develop, and embrace the changing world around me.

'I love data'

There's now increased opportunity to use data, be it live, historic or created by ourselves, to improve our engineering solutions.

I love data, I've become used to manipulating, storing, and visualising it to help in all my engineering tasks. I think all engineers should feel comfortable with data and then build on this with manipulation via digital skills, be it simple scripts, automation, AI etc.

With parametric modelling, we can run multiple simulations to iterate towards an optimum material solution for a building frame. There's increased opportunity to engage with the internet of things by considering traffic flows through cities to adapt and improve our ageing infrastructure. On a personal level, it provides guidance to the best time to charge a battery in relation to the forecasted carbon intensity.

Rich data information is out there, and increasingly becoming more available. Engineers need to reach out and embrace the use of digital skills to start to welcome this new asset into our specialist domain to provide ultimately better solutions.

Technology's role in climate change

It will come as no surprise that the examples that I've provided above, and strongly alluded to during my James Rennie presentation, are focused around our climate.

The environment is a growing personal passion of mine, and I'm now choosing to actively make both professional and personal actions to help on this quest to begin to reverse the effects of climate change. I think we, as engineers, are uniquely placed to lead the much-needed climate revolution.

I feel that the benefits of digital technology, in all its many guises, has an exceptionally important role to play if we're to ultimately reverse our impact on climate change and greater benefit the society within which we choose to live.

I'd like to see bolder targets for our projects to aim for carbon net zero or achieving stricter circular economy standards to skew the industry in a positive direction. To do this, engineers need to grow in their boldness by challenging ourselves and our collaborators to demonstrate that we are here to be part of the solution.

I'm extremely grateful for my experience to present at the James Rennie 2019, it was a tremendous honour, and it was great to meet and listen to the other finalists.

Winning the award was a nice bonus because most importantly, it's given me the boldness to make my voice heard.

Find out more

The James Rennie Medal recognises the best Chartered Professional Review candidate of the year. It's open to candidates who have passed their review the year before the medal is awarded.

James Rennie Award

  • Stephen Thompson, structural engineer at Arup