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Forget Google, focus on innovation on a budget

Flood innovation

When there is no cash for brightly coloured furniture or slides replacing stairs, how do you create a culture of innovation?

JBA Consulting, winner of New Civil Engineer’s NCE100 Technology Champion Award, has outlined how it successfully created a culture of innovation within the organisation on a budget.

“We don’t have the money for fancy coloured chairs in the office like Google,” said JBA Consulting director and head of innovation Mark Lawless, speaking at the NCE100 Club breakfast briefing. “We have to do innovation in the real world where profit margins are tight and competition is fierce. So we’ve needed to balance those challenges.”

The company specialises in weather and flood risk management across a range of sectors with a concentration on numerical modelling and the use of that modelling to predict flood and weather risk.

The company is employee owned, with around 400 staff in four locations around the world. It is this, Lawless said, which allowed it to be flexible to do what it wanted to do. This tied into an ethos where the company considered its success in terms of results, but also in terms of the service it provided to its clients.

“Money isn’t the bottom line for us. Our employees know that – yes we have to make money but we don’t raise that as our key objective,” he said.

”We look at our success in a balanced way.”

Lawless said that over the years, the company had taken the little and often approach to reinforcing its values; innovate every day, collaborate and embrace challenges. In this way, he said that the staff understood what the culture of the organisation was and also embraced the same approach.

“If someone has a good idea then they’ll ring me up and we’ll talk about it,” he said. “There’s a little bit of paper work, there has to be, but if it feels good then we’ll go for it.”

However, without other mechanisms in place, Lawless explained that the innovations were actually being driven forward.

“We’ve got an everyday R&D [research and development] programme, which may only cost £1,000, but it’s about driving efficiency and cutting waste. We’ve then got a much larger programme for investing over a number of years,” he said.

The team also realises the value of marketing its work. It has a strong technical workforce, but balances this with a good commercial and marketing team.

“What’s the point in having all of these good ideas if you can’t then sell them,” said Lawless.

Perhaps one of the most exciting areas which the company has developed is its use of gaming technology. One such example is the use of a gamer mode which allows users to virtually “play” out the installation of offshore wind farms, trying out hundreds of scenarios based on different weather data before physical installation takes place.

Another use for the technology was for the work the company carried out to create a flood map for the entirety of England.

“The client said that we need a flood map for the whole of England and we need it in six months,” said Lawless. “How on earth are we going to do it when it takes so long to run?

“We then thought that all of these games are using a massive amount of computing power. They don’t use the CPU, they use the graphics card and that allowed us to speed up the process.

“We delivered it on time and on budget and now manage their portfolio of flood models.”

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