Profile: Vivien Chow Vice President of the HKU student chapter of CIB (International Council of Building)
Currently in her second year of a PhD at The University of Hong Kong, Vivien Chow will be a regular contributor to Construction Post, bringing a valuable academic and student perspective to industry issues. We meet in HKU’s Starbucks, surrounded by the lofty inspiration academia always seems to create, mixed with the youthful energy of her fellow students.
“I have the opportunity to bridge the gap between people still studying and those practicing,” she says. “For post graduate researchers like me, a lot of our research is applicable to Hong Kong’s construction industry.”
Vivien was born in Hong Kong but grew up in Darwin from the age of eight. She studied architecture in Sydney at UNSW and post graduation stayed in the city to work as an architect for two years.
“I was good at maths and art at high school and simplistically thought architecture was a good match. I’ve always been more attracted to the management side than design though. It’s a really good field to be in because it’s so relatable.
I quickly learned that urban design and architecture are two different things. Everyone wants to have a statement building, but urban design is more about integration and making the whole building work within its urban context, rather than making one design detail spectacular. A really good building is one that you forget is there. It allows you to do what you have to do. If it gets in your way it’s not functioning how it should.
Vivien then moved into property development for just under two years, working on an age care facility and an island resort. “A lot of what I learned were soft skills – how to deal with difficult situations, how to communicate, how to react when put on the spot, and it is these I’ve found to be most transferable.”
During the turndown of 2009 she returned to tutor for one of her former university lecturers. “It was quite challenging because the course was student-led. I had to teach it, but not teach it. The format was really new and very exciting.”
The course required the students to work on a real project with serious logistics issues – an artists’ studio at Fowlers Gap, in the middle of New South Wales’ Arid Zone.
You really figure out what you have learned when someone is trying to get advice from you,
Vivien says. “Students are asking about project scheduling, quantity surveying, costs and mark ups, design… What you usually learn at university is much more hypothetical, because if a project isn’t actually getting built there is less need for checking. When you’re talking to someone on your project team they likely have a similar knowledge base already. But students ask you fundamental questions and to explain them effectively is the biggest test.”
Vivien has also taught courses on sustainable development, and has worked on a research project looking at how to make a hospital sustainable. “Hospitals get obsolete really fast as technology is moving so quickly. It is important to build flexibility into the design so they can last longer.”
Recently appointed Vice President of the HKU student chapter of CIB (International Council of Building), which is a global network of research institutes, Vivien has access to a worldwide network of researchers at the cutting-edge of the industry’s exploration, making her academic reach especially valuable.
Vivien’s present scope of work
Currently working within the construction management field, her PhD focuses in on public engagement. “I am researching the process by which the government would allow the public to participate in the decision making of a development project. Public engagement is far more advanced in places like the UK, the US and Australia. In Hong Kong it has only been in the public conscience for perhaps eight to ten years. But it is now starting to ramp up.”
She takes, as a verbal example, the recent New Territories North East situation.
Sometimes you can’t avoid having protests, but the government realises it is better to engage the public beforehand, explain the project and get support rather than let the situation escalate to a stage where the public feels disenfranchised and becomes antagonistic. Public engagement is always interesting and often complicated by conflicting interests.
Focusing still further into the complex subject, she is specifically researching the physical materials like drawings, posters and leaflets that are handed out to the public. “I’m researching how the client organisation and the public interact through them, whether they are effective and the importance of being able to convey information to the lay person. I’m also, as a complementary issue, exploring power relationships at play to help explain how both sides interact with the materials.”
Vivien hasn’t picked her case study yet but is looking for a (likely) government project that involves numerous stakeholders which are likely to have complex issues that are also potentially interesting for the industry. “I imagine my research could have implications on future policy and influence best practice guidelines. I hope it will help companies understand how to make their materials more effective by showing how people are likely to react to certain situation while feeding into the wider issue of how to understand and manage stakeholders.”
At present she says there is no legal requirement to carry out public engagement. “People tend to be quite tolerant of government in Hong Kong, that is, until government decisions affect them negatively. The more public engagement is established the more people will trust it and be open up to it. With the creation of an actual forum, an avenue of discussion, I hope fears will be heard and situations will progress.”
Where academia and industry meet…
“Students sometimes feel they are in a bubble,” she says. “However their research tends to look at problems industry will face a few years down the line so I believe there is a great benefit in engagement between the research community and industry. Industry leaders are so busy with their immediate deadlines they may not be able to find time to take in what’s happening outside their projects. That’s where researchers come in. They’re looking at the theory and may be able to see where industry is heading, where problems may arise. It can be a really beneficial partnership.”
She reiterates her own experience of consolidating her own knowledge of the industry when called to explain issues in a student-friendly way. “In addition, interacting with the students is like a barometer for what’s out there. Some of these students will be industry leaders tomorrow so it is good to know what they are like, see what they’re being taught and be a part of it. You get a feel for the best and the brightest – these are the people you’ll be hiring in a few years.”
From the students’ point of view, she says that hearing industry leaders talk about their careers is naturally inspirational. “Students they get to see how the theory they are learning comes alive in a challenging project. They might be thinking, ‘This could be me in ten years,’ and they get a chance to ask you how you got there and what your job is like.”
And for the future?
With two more years left of her PhD Vivien isn’t in any hurry to make career decisions. “My options are still open at this stage and I haven’t decided whether I’ll ultimately stay in academia or go back into industry. Looking back, the architecture degree was a good platform, a good stepping stone, but if I don’t practice as an architect I won’t be upset. After all, it got me to where I am today!”