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In the Spotlight: Kate Kenny (Jacobs)

The London Interdisciplinary School
18 August 2020
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10 mins read

Tell us a bit more about yourself and your role at Jacobs? 
I’m Vice President and Head of Sector for Cities & Places in Europe at Jacobs. We take an integrated approach to envisioning, planning, designing and delivering places across scales: everything from regions, cities, through to neighbourhoods, campuses, estates, individual buildings and their interiors. Our built environment capability at Jacobs provides sustainable solutions and results that transform lives —for our clients and our communities. Our expertise spans urban development, masterplanning, transport planning, architecture, structures and civils, building services and interior design. We put people at the heart of it all, thinking about how we connect communities in a sustainable and inclusive way.

Outside of work, I spend most of my time chasing my two boys around (aged 9 and 7).

How did you get to be where you are now?
After A-levels I went straight to Royal Holloway, University of London, to study Pure Maths, with no idea of what I wanted to do for a career. When I left university, I did bar work – in clubs and pubs around Brighton. Perhaps not an obvious career step for a mathematician, but it was great fun. I loved being customer-facing and it gave me a great grounding in working with diverse people and handling difficult situations. I was invited to interview for a large engineering firm and accepted a job as a graduate transport consultant. I worked on all kinds of projects including analysis of the implementation of London’s congestion charging scheme, European cross-border traffic data exchange, modelling travel to airports, and reviewing the impact of the Government’s 10-year plan for transport. Things progressed from there. I love my job: it’s very diverse, no two days are the same, I learn something new every day and am lucky to work with incredibly talented people.

I have had a strong work ethic ever since I was young, I worked continuously outside of school hours from the age of 13 doing all kinds of things – babysitting, gift wrapping, working in a chocolate shop, washing cars. I did book-keeping for a haulage company in the evenings whilst doing my A-levels. I have always loved working and challenging myself – so whilst I don’t think my 18-year old self would be surprised that I work hard and have seen success, I think she would be proud of what I have achieved.

Jacobs describes itself as a solution provider, and not an engineering firm. Why is that? And why is it important?
At Jacobs we are committed to solving the toughest challenges faced by our clients and communities. This means bringing teams of diverse and talented people together to create solutions which focus on delivering outcomes with social, environmental and economic benefits. Putting our knowledge and imagination together, we reinvent the way we solve problems and shape the next generation of innovative solutions. That demands all sorts of expertise and experience, from engineers and project managers to transport planners, economists, aquatic ecologists, and cyber and digital specialists.

What do you think are some of the most complex problems cities are facing these days?
The role of the city in a post-COVID-19 world is under the spotlight, with questions over the impact of density in transmission, the future of central business districts now that remote working is more accepted, and a new appreciation for high quality public space. The pandemic has allowed us to peel back the skin of cities, to create a better understanding of the systems that keep our society and economy going, and the fragility of these systems. When we talk about “recovery”, we are often discussing rebounding from the short sharp shock of COVID-19, when in fact we need to be paying attention to some of the systemic problems that it has brought under the spotlight. If we do this properly, we should be looking at creating a future which is brighter and fairer, and cities that are more resilient to shocks, with a less devastating impact.

This experience has brought into stark relief just how big an issue inequality is in parts of the UK, and this deeply affects our resilience as a nation. In cities, the middle classes have been able to shelter at home, whilst the poorest and most vulnerable communities have been hit hardest, deepening existing inequalities. To take the capital as an example, London is the UK’s richest city but also its poorest and most unequal.

Despite what we have experienced and the recovery challenge ahead of us, the climate emergency is still arguably the biggest challenge our cities face. We cannot afford to forget this. We have made major commitments within our own organisation, launching our own Carbon Action Plan this year. We will be net zero in 2020, and carbon negative by 2030. We are helping our clients set and achieve similar goals. The pandemic has helped us see what good looks like in terms of air quality and active travel. We are at a point where we need to build upon these short-term improvements and turn them into long-term ways of life.

Which global trends are affecting Jacobs’ work? How? E.g. AI, cloud technology, globalisation
All of the above! Jacobs is a large global company that operates in a wide variety of markets and sectors – our portfolio of clients and projects are impacted by various global trends, including globalisation, technology and data. In the built environment space, we are seeing increasing need around digital infrastructure solutions, use of small cell and 5G to facilitate connected, smart and secure cities and buildings, that bring tangible benefits to society, connecting people to jobs, healthcare and education.

In light of the pandemic, we are seeing increasing demand from clients wanting advice around the future of work – from the design of physical workplaces, optimising their estate portfolio, the tools and technology which support flexible and remote working, through to the workplace culture – all designed to optimise profitability, sustainability and wellbeing.

How do you you apply interdisciplinarity at work? 
Interdisciplinarity is key to the majority of solutions we create for clients – we intentionally put multiple disciplines around a client problem, to provide diversity of thought and help us find the best range of solutions. As an example, we were recently considering a challenge for a local authority where they were considering change of use of one of their estate assets. In an initial workshop we had an economist, a transport planner, a town planner, a landscape architect, a buildings system engineer, a land valuation expert and an interior designer. These different viewpoints all approach the problem in different ways and allow us to create something bespoke to the situation – rather than offering a single-discipline service or taking something off a shelf.

What is the most important skill you learned in university that you are applying to your job now?
It would be an outright lie if I told you I spend my days writing algebraic proofs in my job now! However, the most important skill I learned through studying maths is how to take something that seems very complex, look at it from different angles, simplify it and solve it. I regularly apply those principles – whether it’s working through a solution for a client, a business decision or a personnel issue. This is why the ethos of LIS appeals to me – in my view, understanding how to solve complex problems is the most important thing you can learn, and it will set you up for success in any sector.

What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
Be yourself. Trust your own judgement, believe in your abilities, follow your instinct.

How do you personally define career success?
Career success for me is about having purpose, enjoying what I do, and knowing that I’m adding value. (I also need to pay the mortgage!)

Are you a fox or a hedgehog?
Am I allowed to say a fog? I have diverse experience, have worked in multiple sectors, and know a little about a lot of things! However, I can also be single-minded and determined if there is a specific project I’m passionate about focussing on.

You were recently made a fellow at the ICE (congrats!) – one of the few women in a male dominated line up. Is gender disparity (and/or, tokenism) something you encounter a lot of in your career? Is this something you feel needs to be underscored?
Thank you! Becoming a Fellow was a huge milestone for me. At the beginning of my career, I was discouraged from becoming a member of the ICE, as I didn’t have an academic qualification in engineering. Twenty years on, I have been made a Fellow of the same organisation; it goes to show how much the industry has evolved, and the contribution people can make from all academic backgrounds is valuable to the profession.

In terms of the gender issue, again there have been great advances in the past two decades.  At the beginning of my career, I always felt different – I was usually the only woman in a team and the only non-engineer. As my career progressed, I realised that it’s our differences that bring value to a team – not our similarities.

I am fortunate to work at Jacobs, a global company with an over-riding value “We Live Inclusion”, driven from the top, by our Chair and CEO, Steve Demetriou. When Steve joined Jacobs, the top roles lacked any diversity. He made a commitment to lead by example and has brought women and BAME leaders onto the board and executive leadership team. We’ve made deep inroads in the investment of our people, culture and inclusion. It’s a place where I feel I belong and can succeed.

I certainly have had some moments in my career where I receive opportunities, particularly speaking engagements, where I wonder whether I have been invited due to merit, or just to add some diversity. Sometimes people will say outright – I need a senior woman on this panel – please help, Kate! My wish for women entering the industry now, is that they can be completely themselves, that they will never have to wonder whether they are making the numbers up, and to have confidence that they fully deserve every opportunity they get. I will do everything I can to make sure we get to that point!

Kate Kenny

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