While the corona crisis has caused many problems, it also offers opportunities. First of all, it must be acknowledged that the crisis itself is difficult and traumatic for those personally affected by the illness, and troublesome for those whose lives are restricted by the measures undertaken to tackle it. Health and safety are, and continue to be, the top priorities. However, as an innovation manager, this time also offers me opportunities, such as getting new developments off the ground. Change is essential and, now more than ever, we can show that such change can even help us provide better-quality advice.
Our daily work is governed by many protocols: standardised ways of carrying out work to guarantee quality. I would personally like to deviate from these – occasionally restrictive – standards now and then, particularly now. Because whether it's measuring the volume of a batch of soil with a drone, or recording the quality of heavy metals with an XRF, there are ways to keep working despite the current situation. However, if you want to use these – often more efficient, faster and better quality – applications, you must really do your best to (repeatedly) prove that the working method is comparable in qualitative terms with the standard method.
One example of the standardisation that we often struggle with during our work is the mandatory presence of environmental supervisors during civil engineering works. It must be acknowledged that an improvement was made several years ago, and environmental supervisors no longer need to be present full time, but only during critical activities. However, it is more the rule than the exception that field activities do not proceed exactly according to plan, due to the unforeseen circumstances that always arise. This represents a major scheduling challenge.
It only takes a single phone call from the contractor to say that the “non-critical” works have been completed earlier – or will in fact take longer – and you're in trouble. After all, our environmental supervisors generally work part time on each site, and supervise multiple sites simultaneously, as clients are unwilling to pay them to be present full time.
The certifying bodies have already reprimanded us on several occasions because we were not present on a site, while the contractor continued working without waiting for the arrival of our environmental supervisor. On other occasions, we were present and were then sent away because the changes in the schedule had not been passed on. Is that fair?
With today's digital possibilities, surely this should no longer be a problem? If physical presence is temporarily not possible, then cameras may offer a solution. During the current corona crisis, Microsoft Teams has proven to be an excellent alternative to physical meetings, so why not use it here?
For example, an environmental supervisor can obtain a clear view of the situation remotely using a strategically-placed 360-degree camera, and determine whether the works are proceeding according to plan. In fact, we are already using virtual GIS applications, which we can use to issue instructions in the field from our home office.
An additional benefit: data is stored, and can immediately be used as evidence. Some assessments could even be carried out later, for example if scheduling requirements mean that the contractor cannot wait for the (virtual) arrival of the environmental supervisor. This is not ideal, because there is a risk that (part of) the work must be done again, but it is an option.
Of course, I understand that digital-only working does not offer a complete solution: there is still a desire for face-to-face contact, and it is useful. However, we are learning that a physical meeting isn't needed for every little issue. Exactly the same applies to presence at critical moments: such an approach using cameras could be a useful addition to the working methods in our profession.
The current crisis has created a need to work from home more, and to minimise physical contact. This is the perfect time to show that some things can also be done differently (comparable or perhaps even better in qualitative terms). This crisis can in fact be a driver for positive change. It is important to work with the certifying bodies as soon as possible to incorporate this working method into the protocols.
And in the meantime, I'm continuing to think, for example about what I could do with all that data: automatically processing the images into digital terrain models, using machine learning to assist the environmental supervisor in interpreting the images, etc. etc.
Plenty of ideas!