It was absolutely delightful chatting with Kelly LaValley. She’s the General Manager of Planning Regulation & Environment at Waimakariri District Council. She’s also the winner of our 2022 Senior Professional Scholarship. As a result, she attended PWX in Charlotte in August last year!

Kia ora Kelly! Tell us a bit about yourself

I’m originally from the US, and I was a consultant engineer for about nine years there. I mainly focussed on water and wastewater treatment. And then my husband and I decided we were looking for a bit of a change of pace. He had been to New Zealand before, back when he was a teenager, with his dad — and he really loved it here! So he suggested maybe we look at moving there. After a bit of convincing, I said, “Yep, that looks pretty good!” So we moved here with our three young boys, one was five and the twins had just turned three.

I do a lot of running. I like the marathon distance, and I’ve also done an ultra-marathon.

And I also do a lot of tramping with my teenage kids, we often go on tramping weekends and in the summer we try and do a few longer tramps together. I think it’s a really fantastic way to spend time with the boys without any devices or distractions.

How did you get into engineering?

At high school, we were encouraged to shadow somebody in an industry you were interested in. And I had always enjoyed math and science and my aunt was an engineer, so I thought, “Well, I’ll go for a day with her and see what engineering is about”.

She was an electrical engineer at Ford Motor Company. I grew up outside of Detroit and a lot of people worked for the auto industry there. I spent the day with her there and I was blown away. I thought it was the coolest thing ever! I got to see the assembly line and where they did the testing. They had this little setup where they were testing a radio. There was a robotic arm that was just pressing the button over and over until it failed – because they were making sure what they were building doesn’t fail. And I just thought it was so amazing,  it really inspired me to become an engineer. I studied industrial engineering because I was interested in design and I wanted to work on the ergonomics of cars.

How did you get into the New Zealand waters space?

I never ended up working in the automotive industry and after spending a few years consulting for the Department of Defense, I was ready for a change. One of the other passions in my life is water. Growing up in Detroit, my family had a cottage on a lake in Ontario, Canada. We spent our summers there and I loved being on the water. However, that particular lake on the US side had beaches that were often closed after heavy rain, because of combined sewer overflows. So, that had always kind of played on my mind as an issue.

When I was going back to school for my Master’s degree, I decided I wanted to focus on civil and environmental engineering, with a particular focus on water and wastewater treatment. I just found that whole issue of combined sewer overflows to be really critical.

I loved studying environmental engineering. And the more I learned about how wastewater treatment works, the more I found it absolutely fascinating. It’s this whole biological process of converting waste into clean water. So water is where I stayed.

What are your thoughts on the future of infrastructure asset management?

I think that there’s a couple of key issues that we are facing as an industry and as a country.  And they are almost at the opposite ends of the infrastructure life cycle.

Cities are facing issues with aging infrastructure, so one of the key developments that we’re going to see is the use of more technology to prolong the life of assets. These assets would otherwise needed large, expensive, disruptive replacements. We will be able to use tech to focus on specific areas that need to be replaced. The repairs would be much less unsettling to the community. I think that’s one key challenge and solution.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Aotearoa is also a country that is experiencing a lot of growth. And we’re seeing a lot of new infrastructure, and a lot of new assets being built to cater for growth. I think one of the things that we’re going to see more of is integration. For example, integrating future transport options. The industry is changing really rapidly and we’re starting to talk about having driverless delivery trucks. I think we’re going to see a big shift in how we design, engineer and use our corridors to enable all those different modes of transport. More pedestrians, cyclists, scooters, mobility scooters, but also driverless vehicles. Plus, vehicles that still have drivers in them! It’s just going to fundamentally change the way that we plan for growth in infrastructure.

Those are two things that I see happening on the opposite ends of infrastructure life.

What does embedding te ao Māori into infrastructure mean for you?

The concept is not well understood and embedded in the industry, yet. I think it is something that does need to have a stronger presence in education.

It’s an area where we need to be listening more to our iwi partners in how we approach and manage infrastructure. I think that there are approaches that align really well and I think if we want to have good, sustainable outcomes, we need to be incorporating te ao Māori into our thought process. And doing it from the start, when we’re considering projects and programs of work, and budgeting. All the way through to design and implementation and use – the whole asset life cycle.

It’s been good to see that more offerings to educate people are starting to pop up, and that needs to continue to develop. It’s encouraging is see te ao Māori approaches being shown more to younger people, from when they’re in primary school. Because then, when the next generation comes up it’ll just be the way of life. That will make a genuine difference and real change in how we approach things, and that means we will have positive outcomes on what we’re trying to do.

What are the some of the key focuses for sustainability?

Having a sustainability plan and develop a sustainable workforce.

What we are doing at Waimakariri District Council is building sustainable processes into decision-making. Everything from the materials that we’re using and their sources, to options for reuse. We’re thinking about sustainability in the early stages of each project.

Also, it’s important to be looking at the social sustainability of your procurement. So, where are you getting your supplies – and not just material supplies, but also your contractors. Where are they based, are they local? Are they contributing to the local economy?

These are not easy questions, but we need to ask those questions to get into that mindset and philosophy. Then we can embed it into organisational practices. We can start by taking small steps.

The more we do, and the more we ask our elected Members to consider sustainability, the more it becomes the norm. Everybody has a real interest in making sure that we’ve got a good, thriving local economy and everyone recognises that using local resource whenever possible supports this.  I do think this is something that is on people’s minds, it’s just trying to get that translated into the practices and processes which we’re working on in an incremental basis. I know that Waka Kotahi have been focusing on sustainability in their procurement practices and it’s gaining momentum. It’s something that we all need to embrace and look at: how can we affordably build more sustainability into our projects? Really building it into the early stages. That’s what really helps get sustainability off the ground.

What do you think is important in leadership?  

I think one of the key qualities of a leader is to be able to listen. It’s really important to listen to your team, to understand what they need. Really hear what they’re saying. Sometimes they don’t necessarily come out and explicitly say “I need this”.  But you can pick up on it based on conversations. You can truly see what they’re frustrated with. And you can also see when somebody is really happy or proud of something. Try and understand what made somebody feel good. Try and unpack that, to better understand how you can help make positive changes in your area of influence. It might be limited, but it is an area of influence that we do have.

As a leader, it’s important to develop relationships. It’s really important to be accessible. Make sure that people are comfortable coming to see you and talk to you, so you can relate to your team.

Thanks for the words of wisdom, Kelly!

The winner of the Senior Professional Scholarship attends an international asset management conference up to the value of $5,000.