Q&A Aug 2, 2021

Q&A: Talking with Shannon McElvaney, Jacobs’ Geodesign Global Technology Lead

We talked with Shannon McElvaney to get a better understanding of geodesign and geospatial solutions and how they can help cities and businesses determine better, more resilient outcomes.

Shannon McElvaney Q&A

In this feature, we talked with Jacobs' Geodesign Global Technology Leader Shannon McElvaney to get a better understanding of geodesign and geospatial solutions and how they can help cities and businesses determine better, more resilient outcomes.

Tell us a little about your role at Jacobs and what you’re working on.

As Jacobs’ Geodesign Global Technology Lead, I integrate geospatial technology and geodesign processes with planning and design to help clients create sustainable and resilient built and natural environments in their communities. I also foster the growth of the geodesign community within Jacobs and externally, educating others about geodesign at conferences and events.

Your expertise is in geodesign and geospatial solutions. Can you describe what those are?

Often folks think geospatial has something to do with geotechnics or geology, but it has nothing to do with rocks. If you are around young kids, chances are you know someone who plays the video game Minecraft. Kids love it; it’s like digital Legos where they can build digital worlds guided by a few simple rules of behavior and consequences. For example, if you build a factory, how will you handle pollution? Will you build roads or rail to support the factory? The game introduces users to a multi-disciplinary approach to design thinking, and in my geospatial world, we do this with real-world data to visualize the intended and unintended consequences of design decisions. Geodesign is holistic, multi-disciplinary and stakeholder-driven, and it uses spatial analytics and real-time feedback to show the impact of different design scenarios.

Are there any particular markets or sectors that lend themselves well to geospatial solutions and geodesign?

Really, both can be used in almost any market or sector. Geospatial technologists use tools and techniques for analysis and spatial thinking, such as geographic information systems (GIS), surveying, drones, light detection and ranging, remote sensing and more. These are really powerful and offer all kinds of spatial analytics. Whatever you build will exist somewhere on earth, and it will be located near something else, so it’s about the relationships and processes connecting everything that makes spatial thinking so important. For instance, you wouldn’t want to build a freeway next to a school because of air pollution and how it could affect children. This is an example of a spatial relationship, and it requires geospatial thinking to understand potential issues and how they can be avoided.

In my career I’ve used spatial thinking and GIS for projects such as cave-mapping, finding and removing unexploded ordinance and doing vineyard planning. Geospatial tools can be used widely and broadly across all sectors, and I think something that is often missed is that location is important in everything we do.

Geodesign also can work in many sectors because it’s about planning and design and analysis; in other words, if we build a new housing development in a certain location, what are the consequences of what we’re doing now, and what will the consequences be in 20 years? It’s critical to factor in the geology of the soil and the dynamics of rainfall and the vegetation cover. For example, it might be discovered that certain areas should be avoided because the soil is “young”, and the chance of landslides increases. Geodesign can be used by planners, public works directors, cities, municipal governments and counties. It can be used to plan everything – from military installations to mining – pretty much any sector.

Jacobs recently launched Kaleidoscope, an application that determines cross-sectoral infrastructure vulnerabilities. Can you tell us how geodesign plays a role in the tool and what users can learn?

Part of the geodesign methodology is analyzing user and stakeholder input and looking at a location’s existing conditions to study things such as how the physical environment works, how the ecology and economy work and what the social variables are. Kaleidoscope offers an additional facet by performing a cross-sectoral analysis of utilities and aging infrastructure for hazards such as collapsing pipes, exploding water or gas mains. It evaluates their design life and how long they may last. Kaleidoscope can then factor in other hazards like flooding, fires or landslides, to see how those scenarios might exacerbate utilities and infrastructure and take them into account when developing hazard mitigation plans.  

Part of the geodesign process is to figure out how vulnerable assets are and what the consequences will be when those assets fail. Using Kaleidoscope as part of the vulnerability assessment allows users to prioritize where and when something should be done so decision-makers can make smarter, more impactful decisions about capital expenditure spending.

What inspires you?

What inspires me is being presented with problems. I’m a design thinker, so when I’m given a set of problems, I look for the solution, and that sparks my creative juices. Creativity and innovation really get me going, and they are part and parcel to entrepreneurship.

What’s something you learned in the last week?

I’ve learned the importance of communication and communicating from the top down, sideways and the bottom up. There can never be enough communication in a company; it gives people that camaraderie, a sense of belonging and a sense of the mission and knowing their part.

If you aren’t working, what would we be most likely to find you doing?

You’ll find me hiking in the mountains or playing music. I play the violin and bass and I’m a trained vocalist. For the first ten years of my professional life, my wife, who plays guitar, and I had a band, and we played all around the world. We lived in Spain and auditioned for Virgin and A&M Records in London.

What do you enjoy most about being part of the #OurJacobs family?

Several things. First, I’ve created a strong team, and within our company, there are so many experts to reach out to, so I love that aspect. The other thing I love about Jacobs is that you really can bring your whole self to work. It’s not just a slogan. The culture here is one of acceptance on a number of topics, whether it be race or LGBTQ, and it’s really mind-blowing to me. I’ve never worked for a company like it, and people really embrace those values here. When the going gets tough, differences like these are what keeps you at a company.

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