Dervilla Mitchell CBE: “We need to overcome the inertia of ‘doing what we have always done.’”

Chair of the board

5 min read

Dervilla Mitchell CBE is Deputy Chair at Arup Group and has been a member of the board since 2014. She trained as a Civil Engineer and has held a variety of project and business leadership positions. Dervilla was a member of UK Government Council for Science & Technology for almost a decade and is Chair of the De-carbonisation Working Group for the National Engineering Policy Centre. Here, she shares the pivotal moments of her career and relates the intense challenge — and opportunity — presented by issues such as climate change.

Looking back at your career, are there any defining moments that stand out?

Shortly after starting my career as a structural engineer, I had the opportunity to work in Boston for a few years. This was a pivotal experience because it presented new challenges for me. I moved from Arup’s Dublin office, which was a very nurturing environment, to a smaller US company where I had much less support, had to learn new ways of working, and even moved back into using feet and inches. I worked on projects across the US and had the opportunity to see them from start to completion which gave me invaluable experience that enabled me to develop and work more independently. This served me well when I moved to London and took on broader, more multidisciplinary roles.

Another defining experience for me was Heathrow Terminal 5. I worked on the project for 6 years, starting out as the Arup project manager for a small team and progressing to the Head of Design Management for the overall programme. Navigating big design challenges and interfaces, while coordinating thousands of designers was a defining experience and developed my leadership and managerial competencies.

What role does the engineering sector have in supporting a net zero future?

Addressing the impact of climate change is, of course, a huge challenge that we are all facing. It is also one where engineers have a crucial role to play in helping to find deliverable solutions.

At the start of my career, it was all about designing buildings – now we’re being asked to deliver outcomes; for example, how do you design and create a built environment that is attractive for users, is energy efficient, and meets net zero targets? The role of engineers is much broader, more challenging, and therefore more interesting today. Supporting net zero targets is becoming embedded in the work we do and involves us understanding the embodied carbon as well as in-use carbon in the buildings we design.

“Supporting net zero targets is becoming embedded in the work we do.”

I chair the National Engineering Policy Centre’s De-carbonisation Working Group, which brings together people from industry and academic backgrounds to chart a way forward. We look at things from a systemic perspective. If each business or sector worked independently, a change to reduce the climate impact in one area could increase the impact in another area. It’s important to understand things as a system and identify the interdependencies, potential levers, and solutions to make the right balanced decisions.

There are lots of no regrets actions that we can take today, like investing in infrastructure for electric vehicles, or incentivising customers to change behaviours. Positive change requires people coming together, along with the right regulation and investment in innovation to deliver change. In the more difficult-to-abate sectors, government investment may be required, but in the short to medium term it requires industries to work together to make things happen.

At Arup, we work with companies to develop sustainable solutions. We are working with Nationwide Engineering Research and Development (NERD), LocalGlobe, Black Swan Graphene, and Manchester University to look at how we can decarbonize concrete. The project is at the research stage and early indications are that the solution will increase the strength of concrete, which will greatly reduce the carbon footprint of construction. This collaborative approach of academia, consulting, and finance is what will unlock future solutions.

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What do you think are the barriers standing in the way of achieving net zero targets?

Achieving net zero requires a change in how we do things today. It’s easy for people to carry on doing the same thing – they have the skills, know the cost models, and can deliver with confidence. Take house building as an example – we know what houses look like and can deliver them very easily, requiring minimal creativity. However, if we are going to deliver a net zero home or community that requires a completely different way of thinking. We need to overcome the inertia of ‘doing what we have always done’ and change our behaviours and thinking.

“If we are going to deliver a net zero home or community that requires a completely different way of thinking.”

Working with Derwent, the developer for Arup’s new office on Charlotte Street, we advised at an early stage to make the building all-electric. At that point, the embodied carbon of grid electricity was dirtier than burning gas locally, so it was a bet on the planned downward trajectory, which did come to pass. In the UK, all-electric buildings produce lower carbon in operation, so the bet was a good one - and by choosing a very green electric tariff, it is cleaner still. This sort of decision went well beyond normal good practice at the time, and it required a prescience about forthcoming change, and a trusting relationship to deliver it together.

I’ve seen positive change over the last few years; people are talking about climate change and thinking about their impact a lot more. Creating a burning platform, like the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has done, by articulating how much needs to be done in such a short timeframe is critical to continuing driving change.

Access to data will also help people consider broader dimensions when making decisions that impact our climate. Traditionally, cost is a central factor in decision-making and one we focus heavily on in the short term. However, if we incorporate the impact on climate in our decisions and take a longer-term view, it would be a huge shift.

What role do the board and management play in embedding sustainability?

Arup's purpose for many years has been to help shape a better world – and this is embedded in how we operate. Our ownership structure, as a trust, gives us independence and enables us to take a longer-term view. Our board and management have ensured that our sustainability ambitions are at the core of our strategy and our business processes. For example, when we are evaluating new projects to bid for, one of the criteria we use is to assess if this project will contribute to a sustainable future. I think the board and management have a critical role to play in ensuring that a sustainability ambition translates into action in the business and is incorporated into business processes.

“Our board and management have ensured that our sustainability ambitions are at the core of our strategy and our business processes.”

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