Alison Nimmo has planning in her blood - but not just run-of-the-mill-start-from-scratch planning. Her preference is for the kind that's done to regenerate and revitalize an area - a big area.
She made her public mark in the late 1990s as project director for Manchester Millennium, a consortium of partners pulled together to transform the central area of the northern England city after an IRA bomb blew it apart in 1996. Most of the reconstruction work was completed by 1999, although redevelopment continued until 2005.
From there, Nimmo moved to Sheffield One, an urban redevelopment company started in 2000 to regenerate the city center of Sheffield, a former steel mill town. At the time, she was quoted in the Guardian as saying, "Sheffield used to be a great city. It has since fallen on hard times. I want to get it back up there with Leeds, Manchester, Glasgow, and Dublin."
So it's only fitting that after a distinguished career in town planning and urban regeneration, Nimmo became a member of an exclusive group that's been involved with the London 2012 Olympics from its earliest days - even before the bid was won in 2005.
When London knew it would be the next host of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Nimmo was appointed the head of transitional delivery. Her job: to set up the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA). While LOCOG - the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games - is responsible for preparing and staging the Games, ODA handles development of the venues and infrastructure for the Games, including the construction of the Olympic Park. Or, as she's noted, "ODA is building the theater for the games, and LOCOG is putting on the show."
In 2006 then-ODA CEO David Higgins asked Nimmo to accept her current role as Director of Design and Regeneration. That job, for which she is singularly well suited, includes transforming a part of East London from an economically deprived area into one of the largest urban parks to be opened in London in more than a century. When the Olympics and Paralympics end, however, Nimmo will also have been responsible for securing funding and permissions for the first phases of the legacy conversion of the Olympic Park.
During the ensuing years Nimmo has played a central role in building the team that makes up the ODA, brought on board delivery partner consortium CLM, put together the master plan for the Olympic Park, overseen development of processes to drive the work of thousands of people and businesses constructing the project, and managed the design process. Pcubed was delighted to work with Nimmo and her team in setting up the ODA's project office and helping run its governance structure.
At the end of this year - months before the Olympics and Paralympics actually take place - Nimmo's job of delivering that theater for the Games will come to an end. In this interview, she shares insights about how ODA has managed what is turning out to be one of the most successful programs in modern times.
Do you remember what you thought when you first saw the site where the Olympic Park would be located?
Alison Nimmo: It was an extraordinary piece of London. Five hundred acres in a global city a stone's throw from Canary Wharf, and yet it was a lost place, a post-industrial landscape. The local landmarks were scrap heaps. Where the Aquatic Center is now there was this local landmark called Fridge Mountain. The power lines and 59 great big pylons that were marching up through the valley was a real blot on the landscape. I could see the potential, but it was going to take 25 to 30 years of regeneration to unlock that potential really.
So it was quite a hostile environment - very degraded environmentally. And yet when you found your way along towpaths, there's a huge amount of potential. The rivers, canals, and waterways are a unique feature of the area - very special. The whole area crossed four different local authority boundaries, so it was everyone's backyard. I think not being under a single control held back the opportunity to be quite strategic. You couldn't just fiddle around a little bit because it needed very significant investment. The investment for the Games is a way of really accelerating that and doing it in one hit rather than a more piecemeal approach.
You didn't have 25 to 30 years. The games begin on July 27, 2012.
Nimmo: I used to go down on site and think, "Oh, my goodness, how are we going to deliver this complete transformation in such a short space of time?" In the beginning in many respects I did think that this absolute deadline was a bit like the Sword of Damocles. But it has actually been our friend in many respects, because it's allowed us to drive the program and create momentum in a way that just isn't possible without that international set of eyes of the world watching us. Everyone is thinking, "Well, it's the reputation of the nation on the line and we'd better get it done in time." Nobody wanted to be responsible for missing the deadline. It created this incredible momentum and dynamic and focus and determination, the like of which I've never seen before.
A big part of your work has involved choosing contractors to deliver on various parts of the project. Was there a process put in place for getting requests for work, for vetting potential candidates to work on the projects, and to contract the work?
Nimmo: Yes, it was a huge issue who was going to get all these contracts. Were they going to be British companies? Were we going to get the right people? Was it going to be just the cheapest bids? How were we going to balance quality and reputation and track records?
We put together two key things in our approach to procurement. The first was that it was going to be very open, transparent, and fair and would attract the best talent to come and work with us to deliver. The second was our whole approach to sustainability. We knew that had to be embedded into contracts right at the beginning - the whole philosophy about how we were going to deliver what we promised in Singapore: the greenest Games.
We had a very rigorous procurement process. We've done most of it through e-tendering so it's been electronic, efficient, and transparent. We have very strict European procurement rules to follow, [Official Journal of the European Union] (OJEU), so we had to work within that, which was a quite challenging, quite long-term, quite detailed process.
We put together a disciplined program at the beginning so that we could manage all of our procurement and create that pipeline and be really clear about what were the early priorities. I don't think we had anybody challenging us. If we had, you could probably count them on one hand. It has been a very thorough and fair process.
Ninety eight percent of the companies on the Park are British based, although many have an international reach and operate in many other countries - right across the globe. One of the things we want to do is showcase architecture and engineering and innovation. We are using the success of London 2012 as the showcase for British industry to show their innovation and know-how. There are some very high profile architects that work globally; but there's also a lot of other smaller architectural practices and some very clever "boutique" engineering firms have been working on the Park. As we say, it's a project like no other in terms of publicity in the eyes of world watching you.
How did you make sure that those extra layers of the Games - the sustainability, the inclusiveness, the accessibility issues - were taken seriously by your partners too?
Nimmo: We called them collectively our priority themes. At the beginning there was this big worry that it would all be just about time/money, time/money. So we wrote a number of strategies and said, "Yes, a lot of this is about time and money. But also we have these priority themes that we're going to embed into everything we do to be clear when we're choosing our partners about what really matters to us and what success looks like." We wrote those into contracts with our delivery partner and the other partners as targets that needed to be met.
Sustainability was really fundamental. Health and safety was really an important priority theme. The whole people agenda - local employment, skills, training and in particular a big program of apprenticeships - was really important because of the amount of public money that was going into the project. Then inclusion and access and diversity.
We were really clear about what we wanted to achieve and how we were going to achieve them. We had key champions within the organization at our board level. We just made sure that when people asked the question, "What's essential and what's nice to have?" those things that really mattered to us were all part of the essential bit, not the nice to have.
We hope that's one of our legacies - that we've raised the bar on issues such as sustainability, inclusion and health and safety - and our contractors and partners will see that there is a different way of operating, and they'll take this back and roll it out across the whole of their business.
Did you have mechanisms by which to measure the efficacy or success of what they were doing in those areas?
Nimmo: They were quite heavily managed programs. If contractors weren't delivering, we went in to help them and support them. They responded fantastically, once they realized the client was really serious about it and would use a collaborative approach to make it happen. We had what we called a RAG rating, red, amber, green. If projects weren't performing in certain key areas, then we got early advance notice and we could put the team in to work with them to get them on track.
The contractors actually got quite competitive on the Park. They were quite good at sharing best practice, inviting each other to individual projects and saying, "This the recycling target that we've got." We also celebrated success and did special things like issuing pin badges that had to be earned - you couldn't buy them. Our One Planet pin badge was for our sustainability champions on the site.
The key thing is that sustainability was delivered not just by the person who had that in their job title. We got everyone across the site to understand what it was all about and to champion it. At one point, we had thousands of people on the site that were championing this and all wanted to get a pin badge.
When it's something special like the Games, people say, "We're not just building any old stadium; it's an Olympic stadium and it's going to be on the telly next year, so it needs to be done properly." There's pride in the quality of the workmanship. We've done major programs about being defect free and promoting quality. But when you talk to the people on site, there's a passion and commitment. They're part of something special and they're going to do the best job they possibly can. I've never come across that before. It's quite extraordinary.
Legacy is an interesting dimension of the Games that most construction projects don't have to worry about. What's meant by that and how is it manifested in the ODA's decision-making?
Nimmo: We're all passionate about this project because we're effectively building a new piece of city. We're transforming this part of East London and at the same time hosting this spectacular event. We've built in as much future proofing and flexibility as we can. So what we've always tried to do is design and deliver infrastructure fit for purpose for both the short term needs of the Games and our long-term legacy plans. From day one we took a master plan approach to the Park and looking at what were the key elements - the cleaned up waterways, the new park that we were creating, the new roads and infrastructure and new walkways - to design that in a way that would underpin and create this long- term framework for development.
All the pipes and cables going into the ground were sized for the new communities and schools and homes that will be delivered over the next 20 or 25 years, not just for the Games. So everything we've tried to do is been to embed legacy. 75p in every £1 we've spent has been invested in legacy.
Where we couldn't make a business case for permanent venues, we've built temporary venues. The basketball venue will be dismantled and relocated/reused post games. The land it sits on has been basically cleaned and surfaced so it's an up and ready development site right next to this fantastic new park with the entire infrastructure. You literally plug into the utilities that have been provided to the edge of the site.
With some buildings that's been more challenging than others, such as the Broadcast and Media Center. Just the sheer scale of the building has been challenging.
How have you accommodated the huge Olympic stadium in legacy terms?
Nimmo: Well, because we've got Wembley as a national stadium, the [intent] for the Olympic stadium was always to scale it back down to a smaller regional stadium with athletics at the heart. But it was quite a tough design brief because it had to accommodate 80,000 people for the Games and then be capable of shrinking back to 25,000 seats in legacy. [Wembley has 90,000 seats.] So it's a very compact, efficient building and very green in terms of its carbon footprint.
In the beginning there was huge debate about the Olympic Stadium - how best to follow the Bird's Nest in Beijing. The debate was divided into whether we wanted something innovative, flexible and cost effective for London 2012 or to go all out for an iconic building. We opted for the former - which had to be right given the current economic climate. But once it was built, people actually really liked it. People thought, "Wow! We really like that. It's very clever, sustainable and innovative... Let's keep it." So we have a number of football clubs vying to be in the stadium long-term. That's all being debated at the moment.
The promise was that we would have athletics at the heart, it would be multi-use, and it would be a community facility. I think what's going to happen is the stadium will be largely left and the capacity will be dropped probably to about 60,000. But the main structure of the stadium will largely remain intact and I'm confident that it will become a well used multi-use facility in legacy.
Let's talk about communications. There are many layers in a project of this size - the government, the public, and the people whose neighborhood it affects, the people doing the actual work. Do you have a team of people dedicated specifically to getting the right words out to the right stakeholders?
Nimmo: The whole stakeholder piece is very complicated. Transparency and communication is fundamental. Because the Games have been funded by public money, everyone in the UK feels like they have quite a strong ownership interest in it.
At the beginning we set up an overall program and said, "This is what we're going to do, this is the timescale we're going to do it in, and this is how we're going to measure success." Then every year what we've done is publish a document that says, "This is what we're going to do this year. These are our 10 key milestones." Things like, "In the first year we're going to clean up X kilometers of river," or "We're going to finish remediating the stadium site." Then the next year it might be, "We're going to get all the planning permissions that we need and finish the design." Then the next year for the stadium it might be, "We're going to finish all the sub-structures..." Very visible, very measurable. If you don't hit them, you can't pretend. And then we basically put our heads down, delivered them, and then at the end of the year we said. "This is how we fared against what we said we were going to do last year in terms of the 10 milestones, and these are now the 10 milestones for the next 12 months." It has given people a level of confidence that we're on track, it's under control, and it's being properly managed. That's hugely important on a big, risky project like this.
You're nearing the final year of the work, and I assume it's on track as far as you can tell at this point.
Nimmo: We've finished all of our big permanent venues apart from the Aquatics Center which is due to complete in the next couple of weeks. The Stadium is complete. The handball venue is complete. All the utilities, bridges, all the heavy civil engineering is complete. The Broadcast and Media Center is complete. The Velodrome is complete. Basketball completed two weeks ago. The Whitewater Canoe Course off-site is complete. The temporary Water Polo venue is going up right now. Offsite we have our shooting venue, which is coming out of the ground right now. By the 27th of July we'll be in a position to say all of our big permanent venues are complete. There's still quite a lot of work to do on the site such as finishing off concourse areas but we're ready for our first test events on the Park in August - BMX and basketball. We want the Park to be looking fantastic for the "Year to Go" event [1 year before the Games begin]. The final program push is then to complete the Olympic Village which will be done by the end of this year.
Your job comes to an end at the end of this year. Once a regeneration expert builds the Olympics, what's left to tackle out there in the wider world?
Nimmo: Everyone said that to me when we rebuilt Manchester after the bomb: "How are you going to follow that? You'll never get a project that's as challenging, as interesting, or as rewarding." Then I did Sheffield, and London 2012. Each one is different and special. So it's really a question of finding something a bit different and challenging in different directions. Though there's going to be nothing that is bigger or more complicated or as fast as delivering what we've done over the last few years. I've learned so much over the last seven years working on this. I want to take some of that best practice and things I've learned and roll that out to other areas. There are plenty of very interesting and challenging things out there still to do!