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Ground investigation: Energy reserves to human resources


One man’s efforts are aiming to ensure that the benefits of ground engineering for infrastructure construction in the developing world will outlive energy supplies the infrastructure delivers. 

Oil and sustainability are not usually two worlds that would collide. But add Mott MacDonald project director Changiz Roohnavaz to the mix and you have all the ingredients needed to make a real difference to local people’s lives in the developing world.

Roohnavaz has developed a three-step process or framework to not only ensure there are socio-economic benefits to an area but also environmental sustainability ones too. The ground engineering skills that the approach develops ensure that projects ultimately leave a legacy that goes beyond the new infrastructure

The framework came about after Roohnavaz’s work started to focus on oil and gas projects in Central Asia, North and East Africa and the Middle East about 13 years ago. He says that all were facing the normal challenges of inhospitable locations, local outdated engineering practices and technology and skills shortages.

We are transforming lives and we can show how we are doing it

“One of the biggest challenges in developing countries is that there has been very little investment in human resource development and skills,” says Roohnavaz.

“Add to this, outdated engineering practices and we are looking at 20 years behind developed nations. In remote areas of the world where nothing has been built, you have very little engineering data to work with and you know very little about the natural hazards and the climate.

“We are stepping into this quagmire of problems and we had to start to solve them.”

The process he developed involves assessing what ground engineering skills are available locally to help build the infrastructure, in these cases for energy exploration. This not only includes the workforce, but also materials and technology in relation to the construction.

Secondly skills and knowledge gaps are identified within local ground engineering organisations and finally innovative design solutions that maximise use of locally available resource.

“We want to ensure development is planned around local needs rather than vice versa,” explains Roohnavaz. “This is where we can come in and say ‘we have a solution’ without any detriment to any stakeholder and we can apply the framework.

“We reconcile the commercial needs of the project with the socio-economic needs of the local people.”

Establishing the framework

A team of people will visit the area with representation from the client and talk to local contractors, design institutions and government bodies to access what is available locally and gather local knowledge.

Knowledge gaps and constraints are identified, which could include skills, environmental impact and design codes. From these findings, a delivery model is developed that will meet, not only the project and budget timeline, but also elevate the local workforce and maximise use of the local industry.

“We know what we can get locally, we know what we can’t get locally,” explains Roohnavaz. “Then in the solution, the innovative delivery model, we are able to combine and reconcile our findings and get the project delivered on time and on budget, but also with socio economic and environmental sustainability. We want to leave something behind, we want to leave a legacy.”

Upskilling the local professionals

“It’s a catch-22 situation,” says Roohnavaz, who believes that companies have a good excuse not to use local people when the required skills just aren’t available. “The local workers are trapped, their skills are lacking and they are not in a position to respond quickly. The developer has valid grounds not to use them.”

It’s this development of a local workforce that Roohnavaz feels most passionately about and where upskilling will not only make an immediate difference, but for generations to come.

Using the framework, Roohnavaz’s team will go about ensuring that any skills that are lacking are filled. This is usually on the job training, with Mott MacDonald engineers working with the local ground engineering firms to elevate their skills, develop practices, innovate techniques, modify local plant and equipment, all to match those needed for the project. 

“For six months last year we were working with local firms in Central Asia,” explains Roohnavaz. “We developed a very good relationship with them and they are helping us much as they could. Our staff enjoy going there and helping, and the local firms are open and keen to learn. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. We are helping with the quality of the work.”

By working with the local contractors we are significantly enhancing our understanding of soil failure mechanisms while tackling local challenges

In just one example of the framework’s tangible results, Roohnavaz explains that local contractors were given over 20,000 hours extra field work on a project. This would not have happened before according to Roohnavaz, but after the firm had received training, their equipment had been modified and improved their logging and sampling, they were able to be employed.

“It’s the transfer of skills and knowledge which underpins the approach,” Roohnavaz argues. “It works because it is on-the-job training, on a real project, working with real people, and there is a well-defined skills transfer within pre-defined criteria because we know what is missing through the framework. We are 90% there. It is very difficult to get it wrong.”

Environmental sustainability

But it is not only people that the framework works for. There are wide reaching benefits of the using it to increase environmental sustainability and infrastructure resilience.

The Mott MacDonald team will look at the design of foundations and earthworks with an eye to enable local contractors to meet engineering requirements, by using readily available plant and treatments, and locally available materials.

This has saved tens of thousands of truck movements, and hundreds of thousands of tonnes of imported material, with their associated carbon and cost savings.

But the developed world also gains, according to Roohnavaz: “The areas we work in do not have a baseline ground engineering data, and although we may have seen the same geology elsewhere, the way it behaves in these hostile and remote environments can vary to what we are used to.

“By working with the local contractors we are significantly enhancing our understanding of soil failure mechanisms while tackling local challenges. We are not only contributing locally, but we are scientifically gaining so much. It is not just a one-way story, we gain so much more too.” 

Assessing the long-term impact

“In 2016 we were contacted by a major project we worked on nine years earlier and where the framework had been used,” he says. “They were looking for ground investigation companies and had awarded a contract to a local firm who we had helped to elevate their skills and develop their practices.”

Eight years later after Motts finished that project, Roohnavaz says that the firm had managed to keep their competitive edge and also establish another with the staff that they had worked with. “This is a best example of leaving a legacy,” he says.

But it is more than just leaving a legacy, according to Roohnavaz, it is knowledge transfer. “It is the backbone of what we do, a genuine transfer of knowledge,” he adds.

Roohnavaz says that not only is the framework meeting internal Mott MacDonald performance standards, it is also meeting international performance standards, such as the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals around climate change mitigation and adaption, water, materials, supporting communities, employment and skills.

“This is the strength of the framework,” says Roohnavaz. “We are transforming lives and we can show how we are doing it.

“What we are doing needs to become the norm. The framework is very flexible, but it needs people to come out of their comfort zone and doing things a little bit differently.

“We are creating shared value, a new way of doing business. A shared approach to sustainability. It’s a win-win situation for all stakeholders.”

Read Changiz Roohnavaz’s Talking Point here


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