Alan Thompson

HonFIEAust CPEng EngExec

Senior Strategy Advisor

SMEC

Alan Thompson has made a real difference at a high level in engineering, and in non-engineering roles across four governments in Australia and New Zealand. Alan has always been proud of his engineering background, and has regularly called on his engineering skills to tackle difficult issues, not least being improvements to security of Parliament House Canberra, the recovery task after the disastrous 2003 Canberra bushfires, the firearm recall after the 1996 Port Arthur tragedy, and noxious waste problems across Victoria in the 1980s.
Alan originally trained as a civil engineer, with degrees from Melbourne University, and Imperial College London.

How long have you been a member of EA?
I have been a member since 1972.

Why did you pursue a career in engineering?
I came from a long line of carpenters and builders, and had a childhood living on the fringe of Melbourne where there were huge infrastructure deficits….unmade roads, no sewerage, over-crowded schools, infrequent and ancient passenger trains, and periodic power shortages. Living nearby were three young engineers who seemed to have fascinating careers, sometimes working on Melbourne infrastructure, and periodically working in far-away places, such as the Snowy Scheme and Papua New Guinea. I was fascinated by their work.

Also, I had grandfathers who had served under John Monash in World War 1. They spoke highly of Monash, as a leader, and I subsequently learnt from my history teacher that Monash “was really an engineer, and only a part-time soldier”. During my years at high school the combination of the nearby young engineers, and admiration for John Monash, made me enthusiastic about engineering.

Benefits to Australia (now and in the future) arising from my work

Looking back, any engineer will have pride in the various items of infrastructure where he/she played a part through planning, design, construction, and operation. In my case, it has been wonderful to have contributed to essential infrastructure in PNG, North Wales, Victoria, the ACT, New Zealand, and around the Australian Parliament.

However, in the longer term I hope part of my enduring contribution will also be:
• Active campaigning to recruit the very brightest secondary students, (including girls and boys) into engineering courses, and subsequent mentoring of these young engineers to assist them to achieve full career potential.
• My recent work within EA towards establishing the new Transport Australia society, to launch the new College of Leadership and Management, and to pro-actively campaign for appointment of a Chief Engineer for the ACT government
• Pro-active responses to real life emergencies and security issues.

These real-life responses have included:
• Tackling serious pollution across Victoria in the 1980s, arising from totally inadequate treatment of industrial wastes
• Arranging an effective recall for Victoria’s dangerous firearms in the aftermath of the 1996 Port Arthur tragedy.
• Leading the ACT government recovery effort in the aftermath of the disastrous 2003 Canberra bushfires
• Pro-actively tackling identified security short-comings in and around Australia’s Parliament House in the period 2008 to 2012.

Most challenging or interesting project?

Without doubt the most challenging short term “single project” was to lead the ACT government’s recovery team after the disastrous January 2003 Canberra bushfires. The entire western side of the ACT had been burnt, totalling more than 50 % of the ACT land area. Four people died on the worst day of the fires, some 500 homes were destroyed, and many more houses had been damaged, along with numerous large institutions, and small businesses, including most of the farms in the ACT. Roads were blocked, and there were huge losses of wildlife and native vegetation.

It was a time of high emotion, and within three days of the main fire event, I was asked to step out of my normal role, and lead a dedicated multi-disciplinary recovery team, working under the guidance of a small Recovery Taskforce led by Sandy Hollway AO.

We:
• rapidly set up a recovery centre to respond to the myriad needs of the many Canberrans whose lives had been physically and emotionally dislocated.
• provided comprehensive weekly multi-channel communication to all Canberrans, to outline what services they could access, and what was happening next.
• expedited the safe clean-up of the destroyed houses, businesses, and public buildings
• facilitated government grants and community support for rural and urban fire victims
•pro-actively mediated with insurance companies to ensure Canberrans received fair treatment
• began to re-plan the western side of Canberra to reduce fire risk, and a provide a future legacy, notably the new National Arboretum…. which is now fully functional and receives more than 400, 000 visitors each year.

The recovery task was exhausting and emotionally draining. However, there has been shared pride amongst the team members ever since. The recovery team included a number of engineers, and other team members commented that the ability of engineers to quickly “plan and implement” was a vital component of the overall recovery team chemistry.

The most challenging “longer term project” for me has been to provide “semi-technical” advice to various government leaders about large and small infrastructure issues. This has included:

  • Auckland transport For decades the focus of transport investment in Auckland had been road -building, and public transport had been allowed to whither. By the early 2000s the city was close to grid-lock during the AM and PM peak hours. Using the principles many engineering undergraduates learnt in Transport Engineering 1, I was able to make a compelling case for a major upgrade of public transport in Auckland, especially passenger rail services. In my role as the new CEO of the regional transport authority, I presented these views variously to the NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark, to her cabinet colleagues, and to all municipal councils in Auckland. All of these key decision-makers have built on the logic of my arguments to support a decade-long progressive upgrade and expansion of the Auckland passenger rail system. This system has now become a preferred way to travel to work, school, or university, for many Auckland residents.
  • Cost estimates Periodically through my time as a CEO, I have provided frank advice to various Premiers, Chief Ministers and Ministers about infrastructure cost estimates, especially when agencies had under-quoted so as to gain early government commitment to their pet project. The most egregious example has been in the ACT, where the planners “indicative cost estimate” for a major road was only 20% of a more rigorous estimate. In the short run, this type of advice has not always been welcomed by the politicians, but in the longer-term Ministers have generally been grateful for such early frank advice. There have been similar examples in Victoria and in New Zealand.
  • Agency capability Periodically through my time as a CEO, I have also provided frank advice to Premiers, Chief Ministers and Ministers about whether certain agencies (or business units within agencies) were capable of delivering items of infrastructure without excessive controversy, cost blow-outs, or unacceptable delays. Again, this advice has not always been welcomed by the politicians or relevant senior bureaucrats on day one, but I have received later thanks.

Biggest issue facing the engineering profession?

The engineering profession currently exerts very little influence when decisions are taken by the Federal government about infrastructure projects or infrastructure policy. This is in stark contrast to the level of influence of the medicos and the pharmacists when government is deliberating about issues relevant to their respective professions.

This means that major infrastructure decisions are frequently taken in a “technical vacuum”. In recent years we have witnessed ad hockery, huge cost over-runs and delays for the NBN project. In the next decade it is likely that the Federal government will need to take important decision about:
• Renewables vs hydro-carbon fuels
• National distribution networks for gas and electricity
• Transport fuel import security
• Self-driving cars, trucks, and buses
• Investment decisions about other transport, energy and water infrastructure.

Unless the engineering profession is at the decision-making table when these issues are being debated, the country risks further poor NBN-type decisions, or even worse decisions like those taken over a century ago about rail gauges.

What excites me about the future of the profession?

A Three strands of technology currently fascinate me:

Firstly, I believe that rapid developments in “autonomous vehicle” technology mean that over the next two decades, more and more of our cars, trucks, buses and rail vehicles will be self-driving.

Handled well, this new technology will lead to safer travel for us humans, with far fewer fatalities or life-changing injuries. This technology should also empower many people with a disability, providing them with the ability to travel independently.

Of course this new technology will also change other aspects of our community; for example, there will likely be little need for inner city car parks, and many of us may opt to reduce our car ownership, or cease owning a car and simply use Uber-like services.

Secondly, the current rapid developments in electric technology (and especially batteries) are likely to lead to;
• Many dwellings and businesses moving off the electricity grid
• Cars, trucks and buses being much less dependent on imported hydro-carbon fuels
• Far less need for auto service centres, simply because of the simpler and more reliable componentry in an electric vehicle.

Thirdly, the close cooperation between engineers and the medical profession has already led to wonderful devices such as the Cochlear ear implants. I am optimistic that similar advances will happen to assist people who have lost their sight and for various other body componentry.

All three of the above developments would be very exciting fields for young engineers. I am very envious!

Who is my engineering hero ?

A Undoubtedly, John Monash is my number one engineering hero. Monash delivered vital components of Victoria’s infrastructure, not least being the establishment of the State Electricity Commission (SECV), and subsequent construction of power stations and transmission lines to deliver reliable, affordable electricity supplies for Melbourne and much of Victoria.

At a personal level, both my grandfathers served as private soldiers under Monash in the latter part of WW1. Both grandfathers had a high opinion of Monash, and one of my grandfathers offered the view that “Monash was well-organised, we knew what our job was during each big push, and he did not use us as cannon fodder”….which was high praise from a young private !

At times through his working life Monash was undoubtedly subject to prejudice and vilification for at least three reasons:
• his parents were from Prussia
• he was Jewish
• “he was only a part-time soldier, not a career chap”

Against this background, the achievements of Monash are deeply impressive.

My second engineering hero was William Hudson, the driving force behind the Snowy Mountains scheme. I was privileged to meet Hudson briefly when I was an undergraduate engineer. At that time Hudson was in the process of retiring from his Snowy role, but within 20 minutes he gave me some really fascinating insights into dealing with governments, and the public. These insights have proved to be invaluable over my subsequent working life.

Image: courtesy of Alan Thompson