David Kinniburgh, regional general manager – UAE for GHD, says the Australian construction powerhouse is committed to making the region’s developments more sustainable, resilient and community-focused
In a recently released report entitled ‘Shaping the Future of Abu Dhabi’, the Australian-owned multinational, technical professional services firm GHD states that the people living and working in the UAE capital must be at the core of any urban strategy that the government may have.
As it looks to become a leading global city, Abu Dhabi must work to foster communities that will attract and retain a skilled workforce, the report says, while also encouraging a culture of innovation that will make it an investment destination where investors will feel like they’re making a real difference to the city and the wider world.
Having operated in Abu Dhabi for more than 20 years, GHD has certainly played its part in furthering that people-focused urban strategy, working on projects as varied as the Hudayriyat Leisure and Entertainment District on Hudayriyat Island, New York University, advising within Agri-tech as part of Abu Dhabi’s Food Security ambitions and helping bring the Jubail Mangrove Park to fruition last year.
With the company stepping up the pace of its evolution in the region, it appointed David Kinniburgh as regional general manager – UAE in July 2020.
As a member of the GHD family for more than 25 years, he has been brought on board to drive GHD’s strategic growth in the region and bring to life the company’s stated ambitions of making water, energy, and urbanisation sustainable for generations to come across the GCC.
Previously GHD’s Transportation Market leader – Northern Hemisphere, Kinniburgh has been instrumental in the strategic growth of GHD’s transportation offerings in Australia and North America, having been involved in major programmes and projects such as the Western Sydney Airport, Sydney Light Rail, and Melbourne to Brisbane Inland Rail.
Having arrived in the UAE as the COVID-19 pandemic began hitting countries across the globe, his role over the past year has no doubt been challenging, to say the least. However, he asserts to Big Project ME that the pandemic presents a major opportunity to both the company and the UAE itself.
“The traditional markets for us – property and building – have been suffering one of the biggest global downturns since the Global Financial Crisis. That has been challenging for us. We are fortunate that we had some good backlog at the start of the year and that we’ve been able to continue working on those projects, but the slowdown on the part of the developer community in particular, has been difficult for us, though we’re now starting to see that shift and change a little.
“This has really given us a reason to accelerate our diversification into other markets – this includes other growing sectors of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the wider region, particularly in the energy and water markets. We’re also doing quite a bit of work in food security at the moment as well. (Our diversification) is very much about empowering an overall self-sufficiency agenda, which is something we’re seeing being driven very strongly by governments and leaders,” he says.
“Although it’s been a difficult year, it’s also an opportunity to reassess and look very carefully at what the needs of the market are. They are changing rapidly and we’re changing with them.”
With the company working on projects such as NEOM and Diriyah Gate, as well as major industrial facilities such as the King Salman Energy Park, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a major focus for their geographical expansion.
Given the opportunities present in that country, GHD is stepping up its recruitment plans, with a particular focus on strengthening its capabilities in the future energy space, as well as the industrials and transportation sectors.
Kinniburgh adds that Qatar and the Sultanate of Oman are also key markets for the company, with the latter offering some very interesting energy- and water-focused project opportunities.
“Our focus is on two particular areas – what we call future communities and future energy. Future communities encapsulates everything from physical infrastructure to transportation and buildings, community facilities and so on. In that particular area, we are building up our architectural practice, which is diversifying to become more conceptual based. Historically, we have been known more as an architect of record, but we’re moving ourselves into a very different phase as far as that is concerned. We’re repositioning ourselves in the marketplace to get more involved from the beginning, from the start to the very end, which is very satisfying because with the issues that we would like to have a positive impact on, we need to be there from the very beginning.
“Future energy is the other area where we see a significant amount of support and real ambition across the region, particularly as it pertains to hydrogen as an energy source. We’ve already seen that NEOM is about to deliver the world’s largest green hydrogen plant, and we have been doing a lot of work around the world, with a range of clients, in that sphere.
“We have recruited several people in the future energy space as we call it. No matter where you are in the world, hydrogen and decarbonisation of existing assets is going to happen. Whether it happens today or over the next ten years, there is a lot to do, both in planning and design. There will be cultural changes as well when it comes to decarbonising industry as we know it, and the shift towards a net-zero carbon future – or in some cases, zero-carbon future – will not necessarily be driven by government, but by industry. It’s very real and is definitely happening here,” Kinniburgh asserts.
He believes that sustainability, adaptability and resilience will be three key themes for any developer or entity seeking investment in their projects at the moment. Without focusing on them, he insists that it will be difficult to attract the interest of global investors.
“All global investors want to see ecologically sustainable design at the centre of what you’re doing. If you’re a global city like Abu Dhabi, Dubai and other places like that in the region, not adopting a sustainability-oriented agenda, or a resiliency-focused agenda, would be a negative step to take. While we recognise where the market currently is at, we also listen to what other stakeholders are saying around the world and we’ve found that it’s particularly important to be a good global citizen, with People, Planet and Profit all in balance.”
He highlights the work GHD is carrying out in NEOM as being an example of the company’s commitment to these ideals as it focuses on conservation, tourism and the protection of biodiversity.
“It sends very strong signals about the shift towards sustainability and doing the right thing. The other work that we’re doing in Saudi Arabia is more around buildings, where we’re building a new facility that will be the community heart of Diriyah Gate.
“It’s retail, religion and also medical focused, but the international standards that are being adopted, whether it’s LEED or otherwise, in the design, planning and construction implementation, is right at the heart of what we try to deliver,” he explains, adding that he is also glad to see that a number of GHD projects in the UAE – particularly government backed ones – have ESTIDAMA and other sustainability standards as part of their targets.
As the company celebrates its 20th anniversary in the UAE, Kinniburgh is keen to underline GHD’s commitment to providing a legacy to the country, not just through recent community focused projects, but also via a range of other projects that will set the country on a more sustainable and resilient path.
“We are well and truly committed to this region – the whole self-sufficiency agenda that is being driven here, off the back of the COVID pandemic, is of particular interest to us. There is a recognition (that the country needs to be self-sufficient), whether it be in food security in the agricultural sector, or technology advancements, desalination, vertical farming,” he continues.
“Another area that’s of particular interest to us is what’s happening in the construction sector itself, and how the local industry is becoming far more self-sufficient and resilient. There are so few international constructors here and the country is becoming far more mature in its ability to deliver very complex buildings and infrastructure, which is a great thing to see. We’re starting to see gains in modularisation and a real push for efficiency in building is emerging. There’s an embrace of digital technologies in the construction space that, which I think will take off faster here than in other parts of the world.
“We see great opportunities here, particularly in the digital future for the built environment. It’s a space that we work in as well, and we look forward to being a part of that. Finally, another area that we see significant opportunity in, is in the development of our advisory business, which is a new addition to the market for us. Whether it’s asset management or optimisation, or even business case development, sustainability will be a part of that offering as well. As the country gets older, so are its assets, and we need to look at how to optimise them and make them more efficient,” he concludes.