Meet the researcher: Zoë Henderson

Our Meet the researcher series introduces the lab's doctoral candidates and research staff to give insight into our research and policy work - why we do it, what the challenges are, and why we're based at UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy.

Zoë Henderson is a PhD candidate and her research focuses on systemic innovation in the built environment.

What inspired you to do a PhD?

Before my PhD I studied in an interdisciplinary department of Architecture and Civil Engineering. As an Engineering student I often worked on design projects with Architects where we had the creative freedom to explore ideas without the usual constraints of the industry – no budgets, no contracts, no stakeholders.

However, during this time at University I also spent a year working for London Underground on the Victoria Station Upgrade, which really opened my eyes to the realities of infrastructure delivery. Maintaining and improving the underground network is like performing open heart surgery on someone while they’re running a marathon. The network is already working beyond its limits just to keep London and the economy moving, so the aim is to avoid stopping the service at all costs. Working with contracts and on infrastructure protection I experienced the continual negotiation of priorities and interests between multiple actors and became fascinated by the social aspects of design and construction, in particular, the sheer impact that they can have on the outcome of projects.

To me, the London Underground embodies the power that infrastructure can have on society, but by working on it I recognised that this impact isn't dependent on the physical engineering alone, and I wanted to be able to explore the influence of these behaviours, decisions and policy. For me, doing a PhD was the perfect opportunity to be more reflexive about the role of engineers in designing and delivering infrastructure that responds to societal needs.

Why study at Urban Innovation and Policy Lab / STEaPP?

What attracted me to STEaPP was the lack of disciplinary boundaries. Here I’m not defined or limited by my knowledge as an engineer. Being given the opportunity to learn new theories and methodologies has enabled me to combine my experience of engineering with different ways of viewing and interrogating the world. This has been challenging but incredibly rewarding and beneficial to my research.

Tell us about your PhD research project...

Resource consumption is inextricably linked to growing populations, economies and living standards, however this trend is fundamentally at odds with the finite nature of key resources and the fragile ecology on which the planet depends. As a key economic sector, with a significant environmental impact, the construction industry needs to develop and operationalise business models that reconcile some of the tensions that exist between economic and environmental prosperity. A promising approach to improving the productivity of resources lies in the principles of the Circular Economy, a closed loop model that keeps products and materials at their highest utility for as long as possible, but there is limited understanding of how processes will need to change across the industry to accommodate this. My research focuses on the decision-making processes that are needed to facilitate the adoption of a Circular Economy in the built environment, which is based on the assumption that it is people, rather than technology, that is the key to embracing circularity.

1 Triton Square, London - one of Zoë's case studies (Image credit: Arup)

What has been the biggest challenge in doing urban research?

I think the biggest challenge of doing urban research is communicating with a variety of stakeholders. Urban challenges are often complex and people can have very different views of a situation, as well as competing priorities and interests. Designing research that accounts for, and speaks to these differing views can be tricky.

What are your top three (urban-related) books?

Hollow Land – Eyal Weizman

Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space – Keller Easterling

Great Planning Disasters – Peter Hall