Extraordinary People – Sean Smith

Reading time: 5 minutes
Edinburgh Innovations (EI) helps researchers, students and industry drive innovation. They celebrate all the extraordinary people at this University for their excellence, ambition and their positive impact on our communities, societies and our world. Over the next year they will be spotlighting just some of the extraordinary people they’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with.

This month, the EI team spoke to Professor Sean Smith about his journey to become Professor of Future Construction and Director of the Centre for Future Infrastructure.

As a child, Sean Smith loved to take apart the Lego sets he had painstakingly constructed and remodel the bricks into something entirely new and unexpected. Some builds would fail and tumble, but that only spurred him on to think more creatively and try again.

With an innovative and determined spirit from such an early age, it is perhaps no surprise that Sean would grow up to become Professor of Future Construction and Director of the Centre for Future Infrastructure (CFI), a world-class centre of excellence on infrastructure systems which tackles urgent issues from unconventional to interdisciplinary perspectives.

A self-confessed workaholic who is energised by the potential applications of his research, Sean’s academic curiosity has led him to complete projects encompassing aviation, rail, medicine, construction and even Formula One. While his insistence that “I’ve never achieved anything alone” might appear modest in the face of his considerable achievements, his credentials as a builder and leader of teams whose impacts are felt across both industry and society cannot be disputed: his research teams have twice been awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize.

Although his research successes speak for themselves, a career in academia wasn’t always a likely route for young Sean. “My Maths and Physics teachers would be amazed if they knew what I do now,” he says, explaining that he only came to excel in the subjects that would be crucial to his endeavours in engineering much later on. Before that he was tempted by the Wall Street glamour of a life in finance, but a school trip to the City of London quickly curbed that idea. At a lunch with some investment bankers, he was asked by one grizzled professional to guess his age. Noting the grey hair and tired appearance Sean made a conservative estimate of 53. “I’m 35,” came the reply, “I’m on my third marriage, second yacht and I’m burning out.” The exchange was enough to make Sean reconsider what he truly wanted from his career, and so he decided to combine his interests in construction and economics by pursuing a BSc in Building Economics and Quantity Surveying at Heriot-Watt University.

While quantity surveying didn’t ultimately appeal as an occupation, his BSc mentors were instrumental in shaping Sean’s future academic career. Both David Mackenzie (Acoustics) and Hunter Cairns (Construction Innovation) took him on research visits to live sites, where he was able to see the real-world impact of academic research for the first time, and their mentorship sparked a lifelong fascination in Sean that still burns bright today.

While completing an EPSRC-funded PhD in acoustics and vibration at Heriot-Watt with Professor Bob Craik, and following a period as an invited scientist at the Canadian government research laboratories, their work in predictive vibration modelling caught the attention of the Ministry of Defence, and Sean was swiftly installed in the Defence Evaluation Research Agency as a research associate predicting vibration in helicopters and aircraft, where he stayed for the next three years. After his placement came to an end Sean embraced an opportunity to travel and learn a new language by accepting an invitation to work for the Italian government as a guest scientist. Although his remit was construction research, conversations with a fellow scientist led him to discover an unexpected application for his acoustics expertise: preterm infant health. The research he went on to lead into the positive impact of sound and vibration stimuli on the respiratory-cardio function of preterm babies was later published in the International Journal of Prenatal & Neonatal Medicine, and his work still feeds into safe baby sleeping guidance worldwide.

Time to dismantle the bricks and build something new, this time at Edinburgh Napier University where Sean became heavily involved in low-carbon construction and product development. He headed up a large-scale data-driven team project to improve sound insulation in homes with Professor Robin Mackenzie, which required the build of 1,400 newly designed houses across 72 sites in only six months. Wildly ambitious but even more successful, a follow-on project led to the implementation of new Scottish technical standards that are some of the highest in Europe, and have since been adopted in £280 billion of the UK’s new housing assets. Following the new industry networks developed from such projects he then led the Low Carbon Building Technologies Gateway applied research team, supporting the development of more than 120 new construction products and systems to market.

Sean is keen to involve the next generation in his plans to help build a more sustainable future. In 2018 he formed the HCI Skills Gateway for the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal to support 1,000 disadvantaged young people in Scotland through inclusive skills provision for the low carbon construction sector; and in just the three months leading up to the March 2020 lockdown he delivered talks to more than 1,500 secondary school pupils. As a lecturer, Sean gets a kick out of students challenging what they’re told and their boldness in bringing new ideas to the table. “We’re incredibly lucky, as academics, to have new students coming in with fresh ideas all the time,” he says. “We need to be challenged, for the future.”

In June 2020 Sean ended a decade’s tenure as Director of Napier’s Institute for Sustainable Construction to take on the role of Director of the new Centre for Future Infrastructure (CFI), within the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI). At a time when offices were closed and it wasn’t possible to meet his new colleagues face-to-face, Sean remained characteristically positive and got busy identifying how and where CFI can intersect and connect with the University’s different schools and centres, with the public sector and industry, to form impactful partnerships. Sean is excited by the opportunities that the University of Edinburgh’s platform will afford CFI as it grows, noting that some of its new engagements and partnerships have achieved international reach because of the University’s support and global reputation. Deeply inspired by the University’s innovation outputs, Sean is confident about the future and says he is grateful to be instrumental in the process. “We are a leverage of change for good, and that makes you bounce out of bed in the morning to start the day.”

Now, CFI is taking the holistic, multi-disciplinary approach that its director has made his trademark and applying it to matters of such vital importance as critical infrastructure resilience and green heating technologies. Next, Sean hopes to put CFI’s strategic prowess and multi-disciplinary skillset to work in accelerating the UK’s transition to Net Zero, and is keen to bring CFI’s team together with EFI, ECCI (Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation) and the Edinburgh Earth Initiative to create a knowledge and data exchange hub in service of this goal. It’s an ambitious plan, but Sean is only energised by the challenge ahead. After all, bringing the pieces together in new ways to create something extraordinary is what he does best.

Each month, EI will be sharing a new story. Inspired by Sean’s story? You can find out more about Extraordinary People on the EI website.

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Images: Maverick Photo Agency