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Centre for Digital Built Britain

Blog: Professor Mark Girolami on joining CDBB

In his new role as academic lead for CDBB, Professor Mark Girolami looks forward to building on, developing and delivering the Centre’s vision for a digital built Britain.

I am absolutely thrilled to join the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) and look forward to driving forward the data-driven and digital agenda for the UK. These are, without doubt, disruptive and transformative times for the all engineering sectors in particular the construction sector and built environment and my appointment is timely. The challenges we will face in delivering on the data and digital agenda are formidable, therefore I am particularly heartened that the team in CDBB I am joining is truly excellent with strong professional leadership in place.

Coming from the Department of Mathematics at Imperial College London, where I held the Chair of Statistics and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair in Data Centric Engineering, I am incredibly excited to be elected to the Sir Kirby Laing Professorship of Civil Engineering at the Department of Engineering. The position takes the research work I have been leading in the digital and data-centric agenda at the Alan Turing Institute (Turing) within the engineering sciences and professions to an entirely new level.

I was a founding Director of Turing the UK’s national institute for data science, and recognise the opportunity to make an impact of significant consequence through working with CDBB and other Cambridge centres of excellence – including the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) and the Laing O’Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering and Technology. I am very much looking forward to developing these relationships further as we share a vision much bigger than our successful independent component parts, within the university, across the UK, and internationally.

As a Chartered Engineer I spent 10 years after graduating from the University of Glasgow as a mechanical engineer working with IBM. After this period, I started a PhD part-time, which took me to research in the statistical sciences, and my academic career has largely been in departments of mathematics and statistics. This experience is opportune because data is transforming every area of human endeavour. The engineering professions in particular, and more specifically construction, civil and geotechnical engineering, are on the cusp of enormous disruption being driven by data. My work as an applied mathematician and computational statistician brings significant focus to this stage of the journey to a digital built Britain and I am looking forward to providing that perspective.

Leading a very large programme on data-centric engineering at the Turing has required working across every engineering sector, from civil and construction through to aerospace, marine, oil and gas, connecting these to the computing, mathematical and statistical sciences in developing the data-centric agenda that is now gaining increasing traction both with engineering professions, professional engineering bodies and also within the academic engineering sciences. In fact Cambridge University Press is launching a new journal on data-centric engineering and Professor Lord Robert Mair, Head of CSIC and former President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), and myself will be travelling to the US in December this year to work with colleagues at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to lead the development of the international manifesto on data-centric engineering.

Joining Cambridge is fortuitous for a number of reasons. This is the first time I have been appointed to an engineering department and I think the diversity and sheer size and scale of the department here provides me with a fantastic forum of intellect and opportunity. As part of my wider role at the University, I am working with, for example, the Whittle Laboratory where academic leaders realise the new breed of aeronautical engineers need to be data-centric and data-driven. My background in probabilistic machine learning connects me with the world-class research groups in machine learning here at Cambridge to consider how they can engage productively with the digital built Britain programme. I believe machine-learning technologies are poised to make a huge impact on construction and the built environment.

Disruption in this sense is positive. During my time at Turing I have observed a number of companies in various sectors which recognised disruption as an opportunity to change operational models and seize new markets. One of the emerging markets is providing services rather than products – Rolls Royce no longer sells gas turbine engines, it sells thrust-per-hour. Clearly construction will be driven this way and there will be opportunities for those ready to welcome them. One of CDBB’s roles is to highlight these opportunities and help to enable companies to make change; the Centre will continue to play a significant role in supporting disruption in a positive way.

Having worked across multiple engineering sectors and with various stakeholders from SMEs to large conglomerates and government departments, the understanding from a commercial and industry perspective combined with the academic and research experience puts me in a unique position to capitalise on what has already been put in place by CDBB. Working with CDBB and the Construction Innovation Hub brings opportunity to make a real difference and I think that is something all scientists and engineers strive to do.