"Look outside for a bunch of ideas as well as look inside and then put them together and see what happens." - Ian Bergman
Veronica is a vice president in the AECOM Digital and Innovation Group, advancing digital delivery and innovation in infrastructure planning, design and delivery. With a background in public and private sector transportation and land use planning, Veronica works with public agencies and private clients to understand, proactively plan for and realize the future of infrastructure. That vision includes connected automated vehicle technologies, shared mobility, hyperloop and vehicle electrification, not to mention their impacts on city mobility and development. Veronica is also a board member of the nonprofit Urban Movement Labs, Los Angeles Transportation Technology Accelerator. Her passion is to leverage technologies to better connect people to opportunities and to create more equitable places. Welcome to the show and thank you so much for taking the time.
Thank you so much for having me, Rachel. I'm thrilled to be here.
I am fascinated by your journey from urban planning to innovation. How did you happen upon urban planning as a career? Was it something you'd always wanted to do or was there a specific experience that opened your eyes?
I don't think I even knew what urban planning was growing up. I wanted to be a vet because I loved horses, and I quickly realized that I loved horses but I did not like blood.
Super, super relatable. I had much the same trajectory in my teens.
So I did not pursue that career path, but I've always been interested in place and how place impacts opportunity. I was born in Mexico and raised in Los Angeles, so I went back and forth a lot as a kid, and I very distinctly remember seeing kids that looked just like me. Little brown girls selling gum in the streets and that really struck me at a young age, it seemed really unfair that I was having fun and going to museums, and they were doing this day to day. I knew I wanted to work in a field that was focused on placemaking that could provide increased opportunities for people.
Initially, I thought that meant being in government or public service. I studied political science and international development as an undergrad at UCLA, but I found they were much too macro focused, so very focused on statewide policies and programs, and a little bit disconnected from people's actual lived experiences. I was more interested in micro-level changes at the community and the city level. I started looking at what fields work at that scale, and I ended up getting a master's of urban planning at NYU.
I knew I wanted to work in public service. I always had a very strong sense of working for the public good in the public sector. So when I graduated, I got a job with the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning doing long range community planning, and I loved it. I never thought I would work in the private sector. I had this really strong identity of working for the public good. But during the recession, our budgets were cut. There was not a lot of funding available to do community planning or long range policy work. So I started getting grants and with those grants hired consultants and I was working on a project for a transit oriented development, working with a consultant team, basically creating sustainable communities around transit stops.
I loved working with the consultant team. It was something I hadn't seen before. It was very interdisciplinary. They use data and technology in different ways to represent and show the interrelationships between different factors. One thing I remember is that they did a shade and shadow analysis, digitizing the tree cover and canopy and the community, and then relating that to people's comfort and propensity to walk in the community. It was that sort of interdisciplinary approach and bringing together data and technology that really interested me and I was like, they're having more fun than I am and doing cooler things. After that project, I switched to that firm, which was called URS, and they were later acquired by Veronica Siranosian and I've been in the private sector ever since.
It's so cool. Coming up as a 90s internet idealist, we bought into this delusion that place would go away as a factor. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that your local community, your neighbors, the people in your buy nothing Facebook group are the people that you depend on in times of crisis.
Absolutely. I think we've seen it across the country where people who are fortunate enough to work from home are spending a lot more time in their community. Things like shared streets or open streets, collaboration among community members to increase places for social distancing and interaction has really skyrocketed during the pandemic.
I hope we get to keep a lot of those positive developments from this otherwise challenging time. Tell us a little bit about AECOM. What was it like transitioning from those roles into a private sector? Was it a big culture shock?
Yes and no. First of all, for the listeners who aren't familiar with AECOM, we're a global infrastructure firm headquartered in Los Angeles. We have around fifty six thousand employees worldwide in one hundred and fifty countries. We provide design, planning, engineering and construction management solutions across pretty much anything related to the built environment, whether that's transportation and roadways, buildings, energy power systems, water infrastructure, you name it. If it's something in the built environment, we probably work on it. In terms of the culture shock, yes and no. In some senses, it was very similar. When I came to AECOM, there were people who told me to take your time. It's a big organization, there are thousands of people worldwide. With a big organization comes some level of bureaucracy and forms.
My thinking was “I've got this. I came from L.A. County, we’re the largest local government in the country. I am very comfortable with forums and bureaucracy.” I also get having tens of thousands of colleagues. I came from that environment. I love that environment. I think I actually thrive in that environment because I love finding new little pockets of geniuses throughout the world that I get to work with. So in that sense, being in a large organization was very familiar to me. I was able to navigate that really well, I think.
Culture wise, it was almost an entirely new world. There were certainly creative thinkers and innovators and really highly ambitious people when I worked in government. Overall, at least when I was there, which was about a decade ago, the culture was a lot more risk averse. You could see why that would be the case. There's not a lot of leeway in the public sector to take risks. Everything is under a microscope. Everything could end up on the front page. So it's really more of the time, a more risk averse culture. I think that's changed tremendously in Los Angeles, where I was even with public sector clients that I work with the country.
The culture at AECOM was very different from that back then and even today. Of course, it's a business and we're here to make the business function. I remember one of my first managers encouraging me to chase ideas and not the money, and his point was that we should always be on the leading edge of our industry. When we're solving complex problems, we need to look at them in creative ways. When we bring that creativity and that efficiency and that innovation our clients are going to want to work with us and the money will follow.
I started chasing ideas trying to see where our industry was headed and how we could evolve. I was very fortunate that I was in a team that enabled me to do that kind of exploration, and that's really how I got into corporate innovation. In Los Angeles, as part of our annual business planning process, our strategy lead tapped on a few people to help create a new group called New Ventures. New Ventures was like our skunk works within the company.
We were looking at technologies and innovations that had the potential to transform and disrupt what we were doing in the infrastructure space. So that included connected and automated vehicles, hyperloop smart cities, electrification, and we essentially started from scratch. I started doing my own research, talking to clients, presenting at conferences, literally cold calling, literally knocking on doors of hyperloop startups that were in Los Angeles to learn more about what they were doing and how that could impact our work and engineering.
Eventually, we started winning projects. We did the first test track for SpaceX and hyperloop in Southern California. I worked on the first automated bus pilot in cold weather conditions in the United States that was for the Minnesota DOT. Then about five years ago, at the corporate level within our company, they said, “Well, we want to create an innovation group.” They called it Ventures, very creative. They tapped a couple of us from that Los Angeles team to join.
For me, it's pretty much been a wild innovation ride ever since then. I was part of the team that launched our first global innovation challenge. We got about seven hundred ideas, one of the teams that I was helping to coach won, and it was the first product that we took to market through our innovation pipeline. It's a scenario planning tool called Mobilitics, and it helps us understand impacts of connected and automated vehicles. I've been able to work on digital and innovation strategies for a whole host of, I think, really cool projects. So mixed use developments on former railways in Milan, digital solutions to help people travel safely to and from Mecca when they're going to pilgrimage, digital and innovation strategies for repair and maintenance on entirely new cities in the Middle East.
It's really been a dream come true for me. As a company, our approach to digital and innovation continues to mature and evolve and so now I'm leading a digital team within our business in the U.S. West region. I think it is a little bit funny to call it U.S. West because it's Ohio to Hawaii. It's thirty one states, thousands of projects, one and a half billion dollars in annual revenue. I'm responsible for creating the digital organization in that region and embedding it within our business. We're still funding innovation and digital solutions. I feel very fortunate.
When you think about architecture, engineering, civil engineering and building and constructing things you don't think about digital necessarily. I've read reports from McKinsey that call architecture and engineering the world's least digitized industry. I think that makes sense. It's a very litigious industry, one where you don't necessarily want to take a lot of risks from things like digital twin to artificial intelligence and machine learning, there's so much we could do to improve the way we design and construct cities. What it comes down to is helping to serve our clients better, reducing costs and delivering projects that again come back to at least my core interest, which is creating opportunities for people.
When I was at Autodesk, we were working on a bunch of similar things and we looked over at AECOM with admiration and envy. My boss used to say “We're going to get a billion more people in the next two years. We have to house them. We have to move them around somewhere.” So having this impact on construction, even though it's such a conservative industry and such a risk averse industry, even a small change in such a large and highly leveraged sector can lead to tremendous opportunities. When you think about the cities that have really effective public transportation like New York and London, I love that comment that the really wealthy environments are not the ones where poor people have Lamborghinis, they're the ones where rich people take the train.
Yeah, absolutely. Thinking about New York and London, those systems were designed, built and constructed long before we had anything like building information management or civil infrastructure information management or 3D design or digital twins. But we're now able to take digital solutions and apply them to those physical assets to help operate them a lot better. Some of the work we're doing is looking at how we can use predictive analytics and big data from anonymized cell phone data to understand where people are moving to and from in real time. How do we couple that with transit service planning to make sure that service planning is meeting people's changing travel patterns and behaviors.
Especially during the pandemic, we saw that traditional ways of doing that sort of analysis and planning, which rely on historical data, were just out the window. Historic data didn't tell us anything about the way people might change their travel patterns and behaviors, bringing that digital intelligence and that data analysis together with the physical infrastructure is just so critical to enable us to continue to manage our cities in a way that has rich people taking the train provides that opportunity to everyone to move around sustainably and freely.
I wanted to pick up on something that you said about New York and London, in particular. The nations in which the industrial revolution happened relatively early are now facing an enormous amount of deferred maintenance on their infrastructure. And you look at how Japan and China have built out their public infrastructure, it's much more modern because they were starting greenfield and piggybacking on a lot of the work that was done here. What do you think about, it's almost a contradiction in terms, innovation and maintenance?
Absolutely. I don't think it's a contradiction at all. I think it's necessary. A lot of the ways that we've done maintenance for infrastructure has been very reactive. If we're lucky, once a year, we'll go out and be able to assess all of the bridges in a state or across the country. If we're lucky, somebody will notice before a rail track fails. If we're lucky, somebody might report that something is deteriorating or failing. So it's been very much manual and reactive in the past. I think with digital transformation and innovation, we have the ability to put sensors and cameras in place that can tell us things are deteriorating before the failure occurs.
We have actually started doing this with Street View data, our 360 degree data, capturing imagery of assets across different asset classes, whether that's energy, utilities or transportation infrastructure and starting to code and categorize the types of assets we have because in a lot of places, we don't even have the full asset digitized. So where is everything? Where are all of our light pools? Secondly, what condition are they in? Starting to take that intelligence that's in the minds of our engineers and our public works departments and putting that into our digital models so that when an asset starts to approach that deterioration phase, our models can tell us proactively when it's time to go out and repair and maintain them so that we don't get to that point of failure.
There's a huge opportunity in that area. There are a lot of different companies working on it, including us, and I think for us, it's twofold. It's looking at those assets that are already in place, those legacy systems to bring them up to a digitized place and put those sensors, video cameras and monitors in place so that we can continuously get that data and do that sort of analytics and predictive maintenance. Then two, for new infrastructure that we're rolling out, embedding those systems within the assets so that as we're constructing something, we're not only thinking of delivering the project, but thinking of how we're going to manage it for the entire lifecycle because a lot of these assets are going to be with us in our communities for twenty, fifty, one hundred years.
My canonical example of this for those who don't live in California, is one of those long range transmission towers up in the Sierras had a hook on it that was holding up a high voltage line and the hook failed. The high voltage line fell on some drought dry brush. The resulting fire wiped out the town of Paradise and was our worst wildfire of recent years in terms of human lives lost. We don't know how old that hook was. We know it was at least in place in 1918, but we don't have records going further back than that to tell us when it was actually made. It was almost 100 years old when it failed. If we'd had a camera or any kind of monitoring to tell us that the integrity of that unit was starting to fail. We could have saved an enormous number of lives.
Yes, absolutely. When we're thinking of infrastructure, that's the impact we're talking about, it's lives. If our roadways aren't safe, if our electrical grid isn't safe, people's lives are on the line. I think it's absolutely critical that we use whatever tools we have available to help monitor the health of those assets and maintain them in a state of good repair that keeps our communities safe.
And it's a continuum even from those extreme cases. Back to what you were talking about, wealthier neighborhoods have more street trees than poor neighborhoods. You can actually map it. And that has all of these knock on effects around if people walk. That affects their physical health. What it is like getting access to local schools that affects the kinds of education that children have. The opportunities available to people are primarily determined by their parents' level of wealth and the zip code in which they grew up. There’s not a ton we can do about the former, but we can improve the zip codes and that can improve outcomes.
Tell us about Urban Movement Labs. It's your accelerator. I run an accelerator. Let's compare accelerators.
Yes, I'm so excited. I think it's a stretch to call it my accelerator. I'm on the board. I'm on the board. So I'm thrilled to be a board member of Urban Movement Labs. And I think it goes to your comment now about what we can do to make zip code level changes. Urban Movement Labs brings a lot of my passions together in service of the place I grew up, which is Los Angeles. It's a first of its kind public private partnership. It connects communities, local government and mobility innovators to enable testing, proving and deployment of transportation technologies in Los Angeles. Urban Movement Labs, again, getting back to our discussion of how the public sector has evolved, it actually evolved out of the city of Los Angeles Mayor's Office, Mayor Eric Garcetti office, because they recognized a need for a structure and a place where innovators can come together with the city in Los Angeles to test these sorts of solutions. We want it to be a model for safe, sustainable and efficient movement of people and goods and for other cities to be inspired by this model and replicate it around the world. We have founding partners that include nonprofit agencies, the mayor's office, as I mentioned, the L.A. Cleantech Incubator, but we also have private sector innovators from the autonomous vehicles industry, shared mobility and electric vehicles as some of our founding partners. We're a fairly new organization.
Right now, we're focused on a couple of different programs to start. One is an ideas accelerator, one is workforce development and the last is urban proving grounds, which is we've identified specific locations within Los Angeles where we would like to test streamlining the process for new mobility solutions to come on board. What excites me most is the role that UML can play in the city, especially with transportation. I love talking about transportation, a lot of infrastructure, things are a little bit intangible. People know that electricity and water comes to their home, but they don't necessarily think about the journey it took to get there. For transportation, it's very tangible. I've seen at least a somewhat antagonistic relationship between private sector technology providers and cities. For example, when dockless e-scooters came on board, it was as if they just fell from the sky overnight, cities didn't know what to do about them. Community members were upset that they were clogging sidewalks and that they were ending up in lakes and parks and trees and all over the place. And the companies, at least at the beginning, for the most part, really refused to share data that could help cities manage that whole process. Have you ever ridden one?
No, I haven't, actually.
You need to. For any of the listeners who haven't ridden them, they're awesome. They're so much fun. They're incredibly convenient. They're electric, they're clean. And they could be incredibly useful for our communities. Transportation is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in this country, and we know that most or a large percentage of trips within the United States are less than three miles.
INRIX is a transportation data and analytics company. They find that about half the trips in the U.S. are less than three miles, so things like dockless E-scooters could be really useful for that. But the way they were deployed in cities, I think threw a lot of community members and city managers off guard. For these types of innovations to work, they need to be integrated with the overall transportation network and infrastructure. They need to share data with cities to enable the public sector to better manage the entire network, and they need to be deployed in a way that meets community needs.
As a nonprofit, I think Urban Movement Labs is in the perfect position to make that happen, to bring those transportation technologies together with communities together with the public sector, so that they can be deployed in a way that's mutually beneficial. Generally in the innovation and technology space, there tends to be a lot of either excitement or tending to be very disgruntled about when new, shiny things come on board. Either it's the best thing ever or it's the dumbest idea and we hate it. I think UML is in the perfect place to bridge that to help bring these technologies together, create mutually beneficial outcomes for private partners, the city and the communities of Los Angeles.
I love that idea about optimizing for the three mile trip because for those of our listeners who haven't been to Los Angeles, it's really popular to dunk on the city and to view it as this Blade Runner urban hellscape. Like any great city, it's actually a conglomeration of villages. Some of the villages are just fantastic and not just the well-known ones like Santa Monica and Venice, but places like Silver Lake and Koreatown, incredible eating and street life, museum and gallery and shopping, and all of the cool stuff that you want to have a really great urban experience. Those lives can conduct themselves within the three miles if we design our cities intelligently. I'd love to see those models extend beyond traditionally white neighborhoods to places like Compton, which also have a huge sense of community and some really cool stables for the horses, but don't have the same kinds of access to services.
Yes, absolutely. I think cities are doing great work in this area. I should give a shout out to where I live right now, Oakland, which I think has done a tremendous job at this. When the e-scooters came on board, the city of Oakland took, I think, a very proactive and thoughtful approach to centering equity in the way that the scooters were permitted to operate. They included things not only like reduced fare for residents and low income neighbors who needed it, but also equitable distribution of things like those scooters. In Oakland, like many neighborhoods and cities across the United States, Oakland was divided up by the highway system. So I like to think of how these innovative new technologies come on board that can help mend those wounds. If we have an equitable distribution of things like e-scooters that can be picked up anywhere and dropped off anywhere, can we help bridge those gaps in the network? Can we help make those connections that maybe were disconnected intentionally by the highway system or maybe we're left out of the transit system? How can we bring these things together to create a complete network that enables people the freedom to move around as they need to.
Not to get totally sidetracked into Jane Jacobs and the freeway revolt but Veronica is not a conspiracy theorist when she says that those freeways were designed to disconnect neighborhoods. They were part of the 50s 60s era redlining of neighborhoods into white and nonwhite. The freeways were specifically designed to create barriers between those neighborhoods. One interesting thing that happened in San Francisco was the Freeway Revolt, which managed to prevent Mission Street and 19th Avenue from becoming freeway-ified. At the same time, San Francisco was systematically demolishing the Fillmore, a traditionally black neighborhood and driving a lot of its black population to Hannah's Point and to Oakland, where there was not such a powerful movement against the freeways in Oakland having been subdivided in this way. Here's to a future where we connect everyone by public transport, zeppelin networks and turn all of those freeways into high lines and community gardens.
I'm very hopeful and excited by our recent administration and something that's coming out of the Department of Transportation looking at highway infrastructure as a place to reinvest in communities. So as places where we can put in fiber networks, as places where we can put in and strengthen the electric grid. Thinking of these assets that may have been used previously to divide as places that we can do reinvestment. I think it is really exciting to me and now I've taken you to an entirely different podcast about highways, and I apologize.
Highways are part of the infrastructure that makes our world.
What do you think it is that makes innovation so difficult?
Do I have to choose just one?
Pick your top three things that make innovation hard.
Well, I can share my perspective and really focus on innovation as it's applied to the sector of cities planning, infrastructure, architecture and engineering. In these fields specifically, we operate in a very heavily regulated industry and an industry that's very risk averse traditionally and litigious. That makes sense because the projects we deliver are in people's lives for potentially hundreds of years to come. So we should be using methodologies that we know will provide safe and stable and high quality assets for communities for decades. We're surrounded by all of these rules and processes, and I think sometimes that rigid structure can really make innovation difficult and in fact can disincentivize it. There's this concept in people's minds that being more innovative necessarily exposes you to more risk. That's certainly the case sometimes but I think the greater risk is not innovating.
So right now, for example, we're using augmented reality to project construction drawings on a physical construction site to enable us to monitor construction progress in real time. That enables us to detect and correct issues faster. It reduces costs and it helps us control the construction site schedule. Right now, we're working to reduce lead concentration and lead service lines. We're working with Denver's water system, using machine learning algorithms to help prioritize and locate lead pipes so replacements can be done more equitably and efficiently. If we have these digital and innovative solutions at our fingertips right now, that can improve quality, that can make us more efficient, that can lower costs, that can protect public health and safety, I think the greater risk not only to our company but to our industry and communities we serve is to not take advantage of them.
I'm optimistic at the direction the industry is headed. At AECOM, we've had a real focus commitment with resources behind it to create this culture of innovation and digital solution. I think in our industry as a whole with things like Urban Movement Labs and other non-profits, there's more of this spirit of partnership and collaboration between civic innovators and private technology partners. I'm even seeing it at the federal level in the reauthorization of pool of money, called Every Day Counts by the Federal Highway Administration. Last year, they included things like virtual consultation, crowdsourcing of data, virtual as built and digital ad spills to help fund these things nationwide. I think in the private sector and nonprofit and public sectors, even given this very difficult environment we're in for innovation, for infrastructure and civic projects, a lot of these structural barriers to innovation are falling away. I'm really thrilled to be part of that transformation, and I think some of these examples that we have today help show the way that innovation is not always a risk. In fact, the bigger risk is to not take advantage of these things that can help us provide things safely, better and more efficiently.
I really like that perspective. A lot of the storytelling training that I do with the teams that I mentor is the status quo is actually the riskier option, and it's hard to make the case for that because doing nothing is always easier. But if we can visualize the threats posed by the status quo, and I was literally reviewing a pitch this morning, which has video of an exploding manhole in it because we need to take better care of our underground distribution networks. And we're not doing that right now. That means that our manholes blow up from time to time and kill people. Visualizing the risks of the status quo. I do wonder if the pandemic has actually made it easier to make this case, because now we've had a very large scale disaster that we planned for, but didn't execute the plan that we had for, and we've seen all of these terrible consequences from it. Do you feel like people are a little bit more open to experimenting with ways to avert disaster now?
I think it's certainly more top of mind and people are more interested in what we can do and how we can incorporate data and technology to make us more resilient in the future. At the same time, at least with a lot of the clients that I've been working with, they're coming out of it a little bit now, but last year, there was almost no room to think about the future because we were working on immediate crises. Last year we were working on how we clean and disinfect things like train stations, how do we clean and disinfect busses, how do we make sure riders are safe, how do we make sure operators are safe. So it was really a reactionary mode to try to deal with the crisis that we had right now.
I do think that going forward there is this recognition that we want to be more resilient should a crisis like this occur again. We do see that there are opportunities to incorporate data and technology to help us do so. For example, there's a lot of touchless technologies that we can incorporate that generally help with the cleanliness of our facilities. There was not really a push to implement those previously, but with the pandemic, now it's like, well, if we have the time to do that now, that'll put us in a better position for hopefully the day that does not come when we need to be so concerned about touching buttons and things like that. I do think it has opened people's minds.
The other area, I think has changed a little bit is that there's more openness and thought around scenario planning and recognizing that planning for a single potential future outcome is risky, that we should be looking at different scenarios. We've done some of this work internally at AECOM when we look at the future of work, thinking about whether we're going more decentralized or more centralized, more equitable or less equitable and how does that play out in terms of having things be micro, hyper local, focused or global and how that works with the future of how we as a company work. So I think this idea, too, that the future is not one thing, the future can be multiple different scenarios and how do we prepare ourselves today for any of those potential eventualities is a change in mindset that I think a lot of us who are living through this pandemic now are experiencing.
Yeah, agreed. I used to be a skeptic on things like hand-san and wearing masks, but going through an entire winter with no respiratory infections has been so great that I think I'm a convert.
I'm sure I will regret saying this at some point, but at this point I'm like, Am I going to get on BART without a mask at this point?
Right? It's such an ordinary thing to see in Asia. I do think it might become much more accepted here in the States.
Veronica, your career has been so awesome. It's hard to imagine how you're going to answer this. But if you had one do over, would you do anything differently?
Yes, of course. Anybody who's thoughtful and reflects back, at least for me, I'm always thinking, “Oh, I could have done that better.” Looking back specifically at my work and innovation at AECOM, there are a couple of different things. Our first global challenge we did with AECOM Ventures, we were really focused on identifying big needle moving, transformative changes. I mentioned we had over seven hundred ideas submitted that first year we did the global challenge, but only a handful were funded. In that first year we created over six hundred losing teams and I hate to think about that. Frankly, it breaks my heart to think about all of those people around the world who got disappointing news that their idea didn't get funded and in that first year, that was really the only structure we had within the company to support that kind of thing. It may have been an idea that was great for their local geography or for their specific client, but if it didn't have global impact, we likely didn't fund it and they didn't have any pathways to advance it. One thing I'd do differently that's maybe obvious for people who have been in this space for a while is to create multiple pathways, not only have a global challenge, but have other means for people to bring up ideas, advance them, get funded, test them, pilot them and learn from them or take them to market.
The other thing I'd do differently is, myself coming from an urban planning background and a background that's more in city building and place building. I was really focused on are the ideas from the global challenge technically feasible. As we selected teams and worked with them what became increasingly apparent was that the technical feasibility was just one piece of the puzzle. We needed legal input, we needed marketing support, we needed business development, we needed our client-facing colleagues to be able to continuously go out and validate the value proposition. I think another thing I would change is making sure that we had more robust interdisciplinary teams from the start. We eventually got there as we realized at each step of the way that we had gaps. But I think the process would have been a lot smoother if we had those from the start.
The good news, and one thing that I feel very fortunate about is that basically I have had the chance to do a do over. So our commitment to innovation at AECOM hasn't changed, but the way we do, it has continued to evolve and its evolved a lot from that first year. Now we not only have a global process for these big global ideas, but we have smaller regional competitions. We sometimes have specific client based ideation sessions. We're doing innovation in a lot of different ways and at different scales that enables people to use those different pathways, which I think is great. We're also embedding digital and innovation in the way we set up all of our projects.
So it's not only these one off ideation sprint exercises, but also how we apply that to any project we have. We're building out these multidisciplinary teams with representatives from legal, marketing, our client-facing colleagues, to really have this robust team that's not only technically sound, but is actually able to take those great technical ideas, validate them and then take them out to market to help serve our clients. Those are some of the key things that I would do differently. I'm sure if I talk to you in two weeks, I would have more reflections and in a year even more reflections because I think we're just continuing to evolve and learn and change in this area.
That's so insightful. One thing I really like about working with Alchemist, is we really value the entrepreneurs who have gone through our program and failed to raise or have failed to sell their company. They become this amazing resource for us to draw on as we're helping other companies to hire or to identify EIRs or as mentors for the groups. Those 600 projects that didn't get funded, we've learned to tell stories about those kinds of experiences and the programs we run where we say this failure is all data. It makes your company stronger. It makes you stronger as an entrepreneur and as an innovator. So we're taking that idea of blameless retrospectives from engineering and applying it across innovation. The other idea that we take from engineering and apply across the work we do is continuous improvement and it sounds like that kind of iteration program to program is part of your DNA now, which is super cool.
Yes, yes. I absolutely agree with you. I'm reflecting on one of the, I don't want to say terrible, but let's say terrible points in the innovation process where I had the team I was coaching, our idea was funded and we were way behind schedule. We were way over budget. We were absolutely off track. Because it was the first year of the global challenge, we had very high visibility. Literally the CEO of the company is like, what's going on with this project? I put together this mitigation measures document where I identified everything that was going wrong, why it was going wrong and what we could do about it. Of all of the lessons learned, documents or protocols and processes and things that we've put in place. I go back to that one the most because knowing what can go wrong is maybe and you're not going to know everything that's going to go wrong. But knowing the universe of things that could go wrong, I think, is the most helpful for me to help prepare future teams, future ideas, future solutions to avoid those and learn from those.
God, it's so amazing that you should say that because as I've sat on admissions committees and reviewed deals over the last decade, my practice has become as I'm sitting listening to a pitch, I just write a list of all of the risks that I see associated with a particular venture. That's my approach now. It doesn't mean that if I have a long list, I won't fund the venture. It just means that I know going into it all of the failure modes that I've been able to think of or have recognized from my past experience. That's the strongest approach, that's the best analytic lens that I have. It sounds like we came to the same place from different directions.
Yes, yes, Absolutely. I still have my little technical voice in my head that's questioning the technical feasibility of the idea, but now I also have a little lawyer in my head that's asking about IP, and I also have a little finance person in my head that's asking about return on investment. It's all of those questions since all of those perspectives that I think help us do it better every time.
How would you distill all of this experience you've had into two or three lessons for our listeners to take away?
I think I've had such a delightfully weird and unexpected career so far, but one that has been really fun and fulfilling for me. I never thought I would work in the private sector. I certainly never thought I would work in the fields of digital and innovation. I think one of the things I've learned is that the assignments and the roles that you might feel most uncomfortable in or most out of place in can be the ones that help you grow the most. That's certainly been the case for me. If you get the chance to do something weird, if you get a tap on the shoulder and you don't even understand what the person is saying, I would say go for it. That's what's helped me along the way to say yes to those opportunities. What I think has enabled me to do that is to have really great mentors who I've been able to learn from, but also to have great teammates that I'm able to pay it forward to. There are a couple of people that I work with that I literally would not be able to function without them. So this idea of learning from my mentors and then paying it forward, I think has been really, really great.
On the corporate innovation front, I'm still learning. I continue to learn. For now, some thoughts came to me about this question. I think innovation is a marathon and a sprint, so we need to have the culture and processes in place for people to be able to react and develop solutions quickly. I saw this during the pandemic where we were very able to quickly take our experience in using machine learning and artificial intelligence that we were using on video analytics for asset inspection and condition assessment, and apply that to monitoring crowding on transit station platforms or monitoring mask wearing compliance. That ability to pivot and having teams in place that can do that quickly, I think, is very important. We're also in this for the long run. So it's also a marathon on the technical side and the culture side. We're working internally to increase adoption of data science and digital solutions across all of what we do and with tens of thousands of people globally, that's going to take some time, it's going to take training and it's going to create the need for a culture that incentivizes that. So we can't stop working on those longer term things, even as we are still doing these quick sprint type activities.
That's one lesson learned. I think the other one is that it's important to take cues from improv. At least I like to do this and to take this “Yes and,” approach. Early on, we had debates of, where does innovation live: Is it a global corporate function? Is it a regional function? Is it specific to different market sectors? Do we do big global challenges? Do we do small ones? What makes more sense, and I think the answer is yes, I think it's all of that. Yes, we do it at a corporate scale. Yes, we need co-investment from the businesses. Yes, we need the ability for people to focus on things that are local, but we also need to be thinking about big global, transformative things. We need leadership and vision and support from the top but we also need that culture and that grassroots movement from the bottom. We need flexibility, autonomy for people to do this throughout the company. For me, thinking about innovation in the corporate realm, it's a yes, and it's not this or that. We need it embedded in everything that we do.
What I really love about that improv, “yes and,” approach is that it's the foundation of win win games rather than zero sum games rather than winner take all scenarios. You're looking for outcomes that benefit everyone, and it's a really different approach and I think a really much more humane and equitable approach than just trying to maximize the outcome for one of the players in a game.
Absolutely. I think it's even more risky to try to limit ourselves. For example, if we're placing all of our bets on large transformative initiatives, those are probably the most risky. If we're placing multiple little bets on things that are related to our core business and those big things, then you know, one of those is going to pan out and one of them is going to be something great that can help our people, that can help the communities we serve. I really think the “yes and,” approach is also one that enables us the most chance of success.
And again, it's somewhere where blamelessness becomes so important. The way you transition from sprint to marathon is somebody sprints and their idea doesn't pan out. That's fine. They can go again. That's how you run a marathon is you just run each section of it one at a time.
Veronica, how do you avoid burnout? You do so much.
Sometimes not very well. I really do love my job. I love learning. I love my colleagues. Because some of the best opportunities I've had have been these random taps on the shoulder. I really don't want to miss out on anything, so I think I suffer from work FOMO. Like if I say no to something, then maybe I won't get tapped on the shoulder for the next great thing. I'm not very good at saying no to things. I think before the pandemic, I did a better job of balancing. I traveled a lot for work. But I really had a work hard, play hard approach, not like I was going out every night, but if I had an extra hour before I had to be at the airport, I was definitely going to, try grits or try Boston Cream Pie, which is not pie. It's cake.
If I had a little time on my work trips, I was going to be like, suck as much out of the experience as possible and I really love that. When the pandemic started, there was no more play hard. It was just work hard and to me, at least recognizing that I, of course, I'm so fortunate and privileged to be able to have a job that I could continue to work from home. The play hard disappeared and it seemed like time zones disappeared and the separation between place disappeared. So there was only work hard and I wasn't doing great at avoiding burnout, and I started noticing this in my colleagues and at AECOM all of our big meetings we always have a safety moment before the meeting, and I actually reached out to our communications team and said, I think we need to do a safety moment about burnout. I'm experiencing it. I think colleagues are experiencing it.
I literally made myself the face of burnout at the company, did some research and shared what I was going through and how we could mitigate it. Colleagues from around the country reached out to me and shared that they were going through the exact same thing. For me, it was really cathartic to recognize that, and then I started doing accountability things with some friends at work. Checking in once a week to make sure we had gone outside that day or checking in to make sure people had taken a walk and things like that. Recognizing it, I think, was really important and then having that accountability was really helped. Now I'm a lot more deliberate about it. I am a metrics person. I love checking things off of lists. So I got a Fitbit and now I'm obsessed with tracking going outside and minutes of activity and things like that. I think I'm avoiding burnout a lot better now by being really mindful about it, recognizing it and tracking it as much as I can.
I like the community accountability piece of that as well, though, because I think a lot of what creates burnout in those of us who are conscientious and work hard is that the system will take all of the work that we can put into it. What we have to counterbalance that system is our community. Vocalizing those experiences and connecting with other people who are experiencing them gives you something to put against the insatiable demands of the grind culture.
Yes, absolutely. I could look at a half hour in my calendar that doesn't have a meeting and fill it with work every single day. But if I knew that my colleague was going to ping me at the end of the day and make sure I got outside, I was like, I can't let her down, I'm going to have to go outside. It really worked for me.
That's great to hear. What is the best way for our listeners to connect or follow your work?
I am on Twitter @VSiranosian and they can also find me on LinkedIn, which should be really easy. I don't think anyone else has the same name as me.
What does the future look like for you, personally?
I'm really looking forward to operationalizing digital and innovation in our business in the western U.S. I've been at a global role, it's been very strategy focused. This new position, I think, is going to enable me to work a lot more closely with our teams. To me, that means continuing to build out that team, creating new learning and career paths, supporting a culture of innovation and digital adoption, and then of course, bringing these solutions to our clients and the communities. For me, it's always about how to use these innovations, technology, and digital solutions as a means to create better places, expand opportunities for the community. So that's what I would love to continue to do personally is to bring those things together.
Sounds really good. You get to wave a magic wand the next five years of the industry play out exactly as you would like them to. What does the world look like in 2026?
I hope that we're able to deliver and manage critical infrastructure in cities smarter, better and faster. Using digitally enabled design and innovation I think that we can reduce the cost and time it takes to design, engineer and construct assets. Communities shouldn't have to wait ten to fifteen years for a new rail line station to get permitted and built. I think the pandemic is actually a really great example of this. Our cities were able to transition really quickly to create shared streets, to create bike lanes, to create outdoor dining, to create pocket parks. So if we could continue that spirit of innovation and be able to serve people's needs in a faster, better, smarter way, that's what I would love to see. If we can continue to use data to make sure that cities are serving our people equitably and that people have the chance to shape those places, that's what I would love to see in our industry.
So what I'm hearing is zeppelins and high lines, community gardens. Is there anything else I should have asked you?
We have covered a ton of ground. One thing we didn't explicitly talk about that I wanted to discuss is how I think and hope digital and innovation can help with equity, diversity and inclusion in our industry. I think especially now in my experience, there's a lot of movement in our industry and maybe there's more acceptance of people with nontraditional backgrounds because teams do want that diverse perspective.
My background is in urban planning, I'm not a programmer, I'm not a computer scientist. I'm not sure that when anyone thinks of an innovator or a technologist, they would expect a Mexican-Armenian-American brown woman immigrant to be in this role. But I think it's absolutely critical that we have people with diverse backgrounds in these roles and in this field. Traditional infrastructure, as we talked about highways and roads, historically have divided communities and they've disadvantaged minority populations. But I think as we build out the digital infrastructure of our future cities, there's a way to use this to stitch communities together and expand opportunities.
On the flip side, there's a risk that we replicate biases in our digital infrastructure and solutions. I think a key to avoiding that is to make sure we have diverse voices at the table and are creating and deploying solutions by people who understand data and computer science, of course, but also by people who understand community and cities. I really love this idea I read from another Armenian immigrant Noubar Afeyan, and he's a biotech investor behind the Moderna vaccine. He's the CEO of flagship pioneering, and he talks about this idea of having an immigrant mindset and that innovation is intellectual immigration. And his point is that when you leave your comfort zone, when you get exposed to criticism, when you're doing something that people don't think is possible and you persist, that's what an immigrant does. And it's that resilience and adaptability that we need to innovate. So I would love to end with the thought of inviting people to migrate into this space and to take an immigrant mindset to help innovate in whatever field you're in.
That is fantastic. As an immigrant myself, I feel knocked back in my chair. You're exactly right. We are in a privileged position to build bridges between different worlds because we are bridges between different worlds.
I would really love to stay in touch. This was such a great conversation, and I think there's lots of stuff that we can do together.
Yes, it's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
"Look outside for a bunch of ideas as well as look inside and then put them together and see what happens." - Ian Bergman
"We need to transcend the traditional corporate structure - reduce the sometimes difficult journey to get collaboration in place." - Jacob LaPorte
"Government speak is different and government speak is not always interested in learning other languages.I think that fundamentally presents the challenge between government and the tech industry." - Tiffani Alvidrez