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Remote working: project management in the Antarctic

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Jon Ager, programme director at the British Antarctic Survey, spoke to APM about his work on the ambitious Antarctic Infrastructure Modernisation Programme; a programme of work to modernise the organisation’s facilities and equipment in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic.

The Antarctic Infrastructure Modernisation Programme (AIMP) programme began in 2013 with an announcement that the UK would replace its existing Royal Research Vessels with a new vessel, the Sir David Attenborough (aka Boaty McBoatface). Almost twice the size of any ship operated by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) before, it brought a requirement to enlarge and enhance the infrastructure to support it.

New wharves were commissioned for the research stations at King Edward Point in South Georgia and Rothera in Antarctica. Subsequently, a further major project was commissioned to re-provide the facilities of six buildings at Rothera in a new science and operations building, along with an ambitious target to reduce fossil fuel usage on-station by over 30 per cent.

As if the challenge was not daunting enough, a further phase of modernisation was proposed that will replace the largest BAS aircraft, enhance the runway at Rothera, construct a new hangar and make an even larger contribution to reaching net zero carbon in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic.

In an environment where temperatures dip to something you might reasonably expect on the edge of space, with winds as strong as anywhere on the planet and with leopard seals and orca thrown in for good measure, we put the safety of the team first. The implications of an accident are magnified by the fact that, at best, the nearest proper hospital is a five-hour flight away. It is also a very long way to go for a missing bolt or spare part, or to find someone with a particular skill set.

A unique environment

The impact of our construction work on the local environment and wildlife is at the heart of our planning.

Site investigations and surveys help me work with our technical advisers to mature concepts and initial designs. This is followed by rigorous environmental approval through the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and then the international Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP).

This process is necessary to protect the unique status of Antarctica, but it is lengthy, with some approvals taking two or more years. Only once an environmental permit is issued can work be committed to, making long-term scheduling complex.

‘Completely integrated’

While BAS has a small but maturing project management capability, with its own PMO of around 20 people, it alone cannot deliver the totality of the construction and equipment projects planned over the next decade, so we have established long-term partnering relationships with a polar technical advisor, Ramboll, and a construction partner, BAM Nuttall, for Phase 1 projects. Together we have a core team that is completely integrated. There is total transparency in all that we do, and we critique each other through a monthly KPI process. While COVID-19 has caused us to change our ways of working, the core team from all three parties and subcontractors, SWECO and Turner & Townsend, remains totally integrated.

Before we deploy south, each season we undertake structured teambuilding and induct those who have not been to Antarctica before into the challenges of the environment and the culture of BAS. It is this close and collaborative relationship that not only delivers the best team member for the job, but also helps address emerging challenges in the office or on deployment and enables successful project delivery.

One thing that delivering projects in Antarctica has taught me is that even a pragmatic plan is probably overly optimistic. Being realistic and having contingency (schedule, scope and cost) is essential, but also remember who you are delivering for and be sure that the legacy you leave is fit for the future.

This article is based on a feature in the new issue of Project, the official journal of Association for Project Management. The full feature by Jon Ager contains further insight on risk management, environmental considerations and tips for managing projects in extreme conditions.

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