With projects spanning across multiple locations in the United Kingdom, Europe, Greater China and Southeast Asia, Lili Tao has led and managed project teams to deliver infrastructure programmes with high quality and sound commercial outcomes. Her expertise includes assessment, inspection, design and implementation of infrastructure schemes within operating railway and airport environments. In her current position as Client Director of Infrastructure for Aurecon in Asia, Lili is responsible for spearheading business growth, managing major projects and strengthening key client relationships. She holds a Bachelor of Engineering (First Class) in Civil Engineering from Beijing University of Civil Engineering, and Architecture and Master of Science (Distinction) in Structural Engineering at University of Nottingham (UK). She is a registered member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), UK and Chartered Engineer (CEng) of Engineering Council, UK, as well as a registered PRINCE2 practitioner, certified in Primavera6.
Tell us about your expertise and experiences in successfully bridging client expectations and bringing together multiple disciplines from small- to large-scale projects.
• Small project
Many years ago, I was responsible for inspecting a bridge in Corinth, Greece. It’s not a big bridge, but it is very special as it submerges under water so as to allow boats and land vehicles/pedestrians to share the waterway. Although it is a relatively small bridge, it was still quite a big job to manage the entire inspection—hiring professional divers, getting the technical documents translated from Greek to English and rounding up the multiple engineering disciplines to complete the inspection. Furthermore, that was in the pre-digital days and everything had to be hand-sketched on-site. I always tell my teams that there are no small jobs in engineering, only big challenges. And this is why I enjoy being an engineer.
• Big project
While working on a railway programme, the end-client became dissatisfied with the design outcome for a package being worked on by another consultant. This was an opportunity for us to position ourselves as the team who can turn the project around. I decided to look at the rail project from the end-client’s point of view and objectives. As the firm had a collaborative culture, I was able, as a relatively junior engineer, to pull together my company’s experts from around the world and put forward a solution that integrated construction productivity, stakeholder management, technical expertise required, past case studies, investment cases and commercial considerations. Furthermore, I had the proposal packaged into an attractive booklet that was quick and easy for the client to understand. The client was delighted with the proposal and accepted it. Rescuing the project was hard work but the network was opened for passenger service on time in 2014. I always feel quietly proud of my contribution whenever I use it.
In my experience, communication is key, especially in delivering multidisciplinary projects. A small mistake can result in a big engineering and construction headache. Chaos theory and the butterfly effect are very real in engineering. Imagine what would happen if a designer made a small change to the buttress that he is responsible for, but does not communicate it to the rest of the team? As engineers, we have experienced such communication gaps and they generate a lot of unnecessary rework downstream. I always compare managing multidisciplinary projects to trying to connect a spider web. Therefore, we have to extend our innovation from the way we engineer to the way we communicate.
Communication is key, especially in delivering multidisciplinary projects. A small mistake can result in a big engineering and construction headache.
What are the challenges and perceptions unique to different regions and markets that you’ve had to overcome?
I have worked in the United Kingdom and Asia, and to me, the biggest difference is the approach to the market. In more mature markets, the client usually has a well-defined brief and scope. In non-mature markets, clients tend to need more support and advice so as a consultant, I spend more time helping them to make sense of their project, scoping and staging it. In markets like China, speed and timescale are also accelerated—they are not going to wait 20 years to develop a rail network or a mega airport. This means that risk assessment has to be done differently in non-mature markets.
In non-mature markets, we have to think big and move fast. At times, this means even explaining to my own corporate headquarters on how the markets are different. To be convincing, I practise the mantra “Believe it. Say it. Do it.”—this builds trust with the client and my internal stakeholders. As Asians, we tend to be more reticent so in multidisciplinary teams, it is important for us to speak up and say it!
What do you think are the major challenges in implementing infrastructure projects in Singapore and Malaysia in general?
In Malaysia, there is an appetite for infrastructure investments, but this needs to be backed up by a solid business case. As consulting engineers, our job is to advise our clients on whether the project opportunity will deliver value and prepare their business for the future.
In Singapore, the biggest challenge in infrastructure projects is the long supply chain as the country has very little natural resources. For example, a project that involves some land reclamation means importing sand and the time required to ship it needs to be factored in.
Both countries share the same challenge of attracting talent for infrastructure projects e.g., people who can lead large schemes while harnessing the benefits of digital technology.
What are some key trends, if any, facing the design of infrastructure in Singapore and Malaysia?
Changing demographics, evolving technologies, challenging climate and demanding customer expectations are placing greater pressure on infrastructure projects in both government and private sectors. The major challenge that infrastructure owners and investors face is in prioritising projects that will drive maximum value from each investment. So, I foresee an increased push to digitisation of design and a ‘whole-of-life’ asset management approach to infrastructure projects.
Currently, there is a shortage of skills for this kind of work. It will require engineers who are willing to move into a smarter way of engineering design and develop commercial savviness. Engineers can act as bridges linking the technical and commercial aspects of an infrastructure asset and help governments and companies make better decisions.
I foresee an increased push to digitisation of design and a ‘whole-of-life’ asset management approach to infrastructure projects.
How do you want your legacy to be remembered when it comes to bridging projects and successfully circumventing hurdles?
As my legacy, I want to be remembered for pushing the boundary and being open to solutions that have never been tried. Having a senior job title is not the end and I continue to learn new things every day.
What principles are fundamental to your work ethos and culture?
Harnessing the ideas and commitment of a cross cultural, cross gender, cross disciplinary workforce are vital for the success of any mega infrastructure project. This high level of collaboration can only be achieved in a work environment where everyone feels respected, has a sense of value and is willing to contribute. As a leader, I am committed to maintaining a culture based on mutual respect, diversity and inclusion. I lead by example—showing respect to people regardless of their levels. I communicate clearly about my expectations and desired outcomes. Finally, I always look to harness people’s strengths, while being mindful of their limitations.
What are your upcoming plans for 2020?
I have two objectives. The first is to bring more digital tools to my clients’ projects so that we can deliver smarter and faster. The second is to advocate for more women in senior leadership positions, especially those with engineering background.