Keith Lawson on the outlook for Asia’s infrastructure industry

Keith Lawson is Vice President and Regional Director for Asia at Jacobs, a global firm providing full spectrum of professional services including consulting, technical, scientific and project delivery for the government and private sector. He leads professional solutions business of Jacobs across seven countries, delivering client solutions across water, transportation, built environment and power market sectors. A civil engineer by background, Lawson has 20 years of professional experience and has worked across Europe, Australia and most recently Asia—focusing on operational leadership, business development and client management, as well as holding key leadership roles on numerous major infrastructure projects.

From his experience before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, he shares his viewpoints on navigating the new normal, leadership in a time of crisis, and the outlook for Asia’s infrastructure industry—which is likely to remain positive as governments will continue accelerating investment to protect long-term economic growth.

How do you see the outlook on Asia’s infrastructure industry once the health crisis abates?

While the disruptions brought about by COVID-19 continue to unfold, it has already shed light on significant infrastructure gaps that have put long-term economic or environmental sustainability at risk for many countries. It highlights the importance of resilient, sustainable infrastructures that address essential humanitarian needs from adequate public healthcare, water and sanitation, energy and power, and urban mobility. In Asia, nowhere is this more evident than the developing countries, which unfortunately may remain vulnerable to such outbreaks.

As economic pressures mount and vast uncertainty looms over the impact of the crisis, we’re maintaining a positive outlook for the infrastructure sector in the longer term, because governments will continue accelerating critical infrastructure investment to protect long-term growth and prosperity. Both private and government sectors will march on with their ongoing focus to tackle long-term global challenges and trends such as climate change, cyber warfare, digital innovation and rapid urbanisation. I believe infrastructure companies are well placed to deliver transformational solutions in this evolving landscape once the crisis abates.

The infrastructure industry will have a meaningful role to play in driving recovery – Keith Lawson; image by Jacobs

In the near term, we’re expecting project delays rather than project withdrawals, which is mainly due to the uncertainty of long-term economic repercussions and reassessment of funding priorities. Even so, we are seeing plenty of opportunities to drive new conversations and catalyse initiatives for stakeholders to emerge stronger, become more operationally resilient and environmentally sustainable.

Our future in a post-pandemic world will depend on an unrelenting focus on the long-term view, agility to pivot strategically and rapid adaptability to the next normal. Once the world is on the path to normalcy, regardless of what that looks like, the industry will have a meaningful role to play in driving recovery.

The outlook for infrastructure industry is likely to remain positive as governments will continue accelerating investment to protect long-term economic growth; image by Jacobs

What do you expect from the government so that businesses can recover rapidly?

The magnitude of this unprecedented challenge means governments are combatting the pandemic across all fronts, from supporting health infrastructure to save lives, protecting the livelihoods of vulnerable communities and helping businesses cope with potential losses and maintain continuity. Going forward, governments must look to driving actions to overcome long-term impacts and shift towards economic recovery. We encourage governments to maintain regular dialogue and engage with the industry about their plans and help protect businesses that are vital to the infrastructure ecosystem and value chain. Where governments need to reassess investment priorities, it will be key to maintain infrastructure investment that contributes to GDP growth while also providing resiliency and economic stimulus to drive recovery.

What strategies have you adopted since the pandemic that may be carried forward to the post-COVID world?

We have successfully hosted virtual project workshops for some of our largest programmes and brought thought leadership insights to webinars and podcasts to share our views, draw insights from various professionals, and develop new ways forward. This extends to our learning and development sphere. Our virtual world of work has provided us the opportunity to consider further reduction to business travel in a post-COVID-19 future, and help contribute to reducing our carbon footprint as part of Jacobs’ Climate Action Plan that we’ve recently launched.

Jacobs rapidly shifted from business-as-usual to virtual collaboration and digital project delivery since the pandemic; image by Jacobs

Throughout this period of significant change and disruption, we have remained committed to our BeyondZero culture of caring by maintaining a safe working environment for our people. This includes mental wellness—helping our people adapt to new norms, cope with anxiety spurred by the COVID-19 disruptions and mitigate any other impacts on mental health. Around the world, Jacobs has more than 1,700 Positive Mental Health Champions who are trained to support our colleagues and are actively engaging our people to help improve emotional resilience and encourage positive mental health.

What do you think makes a good leader in a time of crisis?

The pandemic has taken business planning and forecasting to a whole new level. Our ability to act and drive rapid responses requires strategic foresight, coordinated efforts across multi-functional teams as well as effective and consistent communications.

It is paramount for leaders to remain visible and accessible, maintaining regular dialogue whilst empowering the team to make the right decisions to protect the safety of people, mitigate issues and maintain business continuity as events continue to unfold. As crises affect people in unique ways, leaders should lead with empathy, focus on addressing these impacts and putting in place the support required in a time of need.

In times like this, I am reminded of the extraordinary people we have at Jacobs. I am proud to see our people unite around the globe to support one another, our clients and communities to make a difference every day and forge a positive path forward in the face of a crisis. I’ve reflected on this upon witnessing the unprecedented challenges undertaken by my colleagues throughout this crisis. I believe, at the heart of our response is our unwavering focus on our culture of caring and genuine concern for our people.

It will be key for governments to maintain infrastructure investment that contributes to GDP growth while also providing resiliency and economic stimulus to drive recovery; image by Jacobs

How do you navigate the new normal?

As engineers, architects and planners, our focus since the outbreak has been on safeguarding our projects and maintaining our project commitments to our clients. Like many other businesses in the infrastructure world, Jacobs rapidly shifted from business-as-usual to remote working and digital project delivery, whilst the majority of construction activities were momentarily halted.

At the heart of our COVID-19 response are our people. We’re proud that our teams have demonstrated tremendous agility and resiliency in navigating through this dynamic environment and are collaboratively working with our clients to accelerate changing priorities, protect their business continuity and help them thrive in a post-pandemic future.

Humans are wired for survival and business people are trained to deal with change. Even before the pandemic, many of us had been aware of the VUCA world—a reality with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. We were always told to prepare for change and respond to it with agility. COVID-19 is no different. It is a tide of change that requires fast and robust responses, only the scale is massive and it happens so suddenly.

We should also prioritise health risk mitigation by quantifying and planning for environmental and health threats. Most importantly, we should integrate government policies into our business economics policies. The pandemic is a global threat and we need to respond to it as a unified community. Otherwise, we will not be able to achieve stability that we need to boost economic efficiency in the first place.

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