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A vision of the future

Updated Wednesday 6th March 2013

Uwe Krueger, CEO of global engineering firm Atkins, shares how he plans for developments with the future in mind.

Talking to Leslie Budd, Uwe Krueger discusses the importance of vision when planning for the future. 

  • How do you engineer future cities as human habitats?
  • How do you sustain these cities?
  • How difficult is it to keep the commitment to carbon neutral infrastructure in the current economic environment?


Leslie Budd and Uwe Krueger were talking after a recording of The Bottom Line.


Interviewer: Uwe, the growth in global urbanisation has put cities at the centre of public debate and policymaking. How do you engineer future cities as human habitats?

Uwe Krueger: It’s a question really right at the centre of what we are currently doing at Atkins. We’ve just published a study dealing with future proofing cities, so exactly this question how do we shape as engineers the environment where people in the future live and work is of extreme importance. And building on what you just said let’s just get the facts right.

Today, as we speak, around 60% of the world population lives in some kind of urban centre, and in ten years from now it will be 75%. 95% of this rapid development future migration into urban centres happens in the developing world. It’s not happening in London or New York, it’s happening in Calcutta, in Benghazi, in cities in China. So there’s enormous opportunity for us as engineers to try to get that right as we consult these cities in providing environments in the future where people like to live and work in.

What does it take? It takes in our view a holistic approach towards all elements of design and engineering and planning. That means the energy planning of a city; the water and waste planning, waste management planning of a city, the transport infrastructure. The economic infrastructure, like for example in the interest of being able to finance modern metros in a city you need to generate revenue generating real estate around those transport hubs in order to attract private financing into it.

All these elements and at the very end also kind of the planning of the leisure activities you can do in a city, parks, opera houses, all that has to come together in order to have a sustainable and responsible development, and frankly that’s what engineers like Atkins are passionate about.

Interviewer: Let’s pick up the point about future proofing. Given environmental challenges, shifting geopolitics, how do you sustain these cities and avoid populations walking away from them, as we’ve seen in places like Detroit and some of the other cities in America particularly?

Uwe Krueger: I think we have an example here in the UK literally next door here in London. If you look at how engineering knowhow turned a completely derelict highly contaminated piece of land in London, namely Stratford, into the Olympic Park, an enormous success story.

This kind of situation that you have dysfunctional areas in a city, often social hotspots as well, Stratford again a good example for that, and then with a lot of vision, in that case a vision that has been, the input came from Lord Coe and from Sir John Armitt from the Olympic Delivery Authority and LOCOG at the very beginning, and clearly from the Mayor of London. And then invite the private sector and engineering companies, like Atkins, to put all the innovation they can come up with and generate ideas for example how you can wash the soil, as opposed of dumping it somewhere, how you can reuse the debris from demolition for walls and new structures, how you can create a park with kind of features that people like to stroll along the ways of the park in the future.

All that knowledge that we captured with London 2012 now can be translated into similar challenges around the globe. Let’s take Azerbaijan, for example. The President of Azerbaijan has asked us to do something similar with an area called the Black City, within Baku, turning it into the White City, so an area with similar features like the Olympic Park, or in Qatar, where the country clearly in a very difficult environment there in the desert to create an urban centre for the future that will host the World Soccer Championships in 2022. So, clearly, you were quoting examples like Detroit where city planning has experienced enormous challenges to get it right.

Now, if we look at those experiences that I was talking about, you can see that what we’ve learnt out of recent very successful engineering approaches can help a lot to get it right the first time in the future.

Interviewer: And to finally pick up on another point, your predecessor at Atkins had a strong commitment to carbon neutral infrastructure.

Uwe Krueger: Yeah.

Interviewer: How difficult is it to sustain that commitment in the current economic environment?

Uwe Krueger: It is an interesting challenge, because the common wisdom is that it comes with additional cost when you approach either infrastructure or commercial or residential real estate. But, as I said at the beginning, we believe strongly today that if you have a holistic approach, if you try to get all the pieces of the puzzle together, including a lifecycle cost approach towards assets, then you realise all of a sudden an upfront investment in a more energy efficient curtain wall, or in a more energy efficient HVAC system, or in a more responsible sourcing approach with regard to the building materials that you put into the building, will pay during the lifetime of a building or an infrastructure asset. It is really surprising and more and more studies demonstrate that it is exactly the case.

So we really need to look at those large scale infrastructure projects from a much more kind of holistic perspective, and we need to be brave enough to also allow extraordinary design ideas to be realised. I’ll give you an example for that how with design you can change also the culture of people and how they use public infrastructure. Best example for that in my view is Dubai. The ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed, realised that his country was more and more falling in love with the car. Clearly there’s enormous amount of wealth in the Emirates, so you see all kinds of luxury cars and in general a fast growing population of cars being used for individual transport. So the collapse and people ending up in one traffic jam after the other was clearly in sight.

So his vision was to start a project where he said can international design companies help me to create a metro that in its design does really appeal to the public so that I can change the culture, that I can encourage people to use public transportation, because all of a sudden it’s a cool thing to do - and this is where a company like Atkins came into play and we designed this stunning metro. With a result that not only it’s the largest monorail metro line currently under operation, but by its very design it appeals so much to the public that year by year since start of operation has clearly exceeded expectation of utilisation to the degree that even catwalk shows are being performed now in these metro facilities. Well I think probably the latest James Bond film shows us that that’s also possible in the UK and in London in the future.

Interviewer: Uwe Krueger, thank you very much.

Uwe Krueger: Thank you.


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