A simple e-mail signature can distill a philosophy of life. Elena Navarro highlights this notion as we near the end of the interview – sometimes it is better to start at the end – and discusses the concept of being perpetual learners, understanding that there is much more we don’t know than what we do. “In e-mail signatures, many people immediately put ‘Senior blah blah.’ And I say: oh, how sad. For me, a senior is a person who has more to teach than to learn. I’m never going to put it on […], you always have something to learn, and you will learn from everyone. And maybe there is something in which you are an expert, and you can teach, but are you really a senior?”
In a way, that perspective best defines her idea of innovation: to always ask and question. Not taking anything for granted. Speaking of titles and e-mail signatures, Elena’s position is Digital Business Development & Smart Society Manager, but it could be summarized as “Innovator.” Although, yes, with her feet on the ground.
She sees technology as nothing more than a tool to make life easier: for the teams at ACCIONA that build, operate and maintain bridges, buildings, wind turbines, or desalination plants, yes, but also for the end users: those who switch on the lights, drive an electric vehicle or turn on the tap. And that is for the simple reason that, first and foremost, she is a civil engineer.
Now, let’s start from the beginning.
Imagine a little girl playing with Lego, those cubic pieces that have cost a clueless parent more than one painful step. However, she does not build castles or pirate ships: her thing is rather to design plan views of buildings with their respective rooms. This girl’s name is Elena; she was born in Alicante, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, and still carries in her memory the smell from the summer solstice bonfires of San Juan and the saltpeter of the sea. However, she feels more from Hellin, in the heart of Spain, where her family is from.
Her father was a doctor from Albacete, but one day little Elena went to kindergarten, and a friend told her that her father was a civil engineer. What a peculiar profession. Being inquisitive by nature, she asked her what it was all about, and her classmate explained it with childlike simplicity.
It didn’t take her long to realize that’s what she would be when she grew up. Years later, she hasn’t changed her mind: “I’ve realized I wasn’t wrong. I love it. I am an admirer of infrastructures, and within engineering, I think that civil engineering is the one that allows you to get closer to the real world. I mean, we all see a road, walk around a port, take airplanes, and see the runways of airports.”
“In English, the word ‘engineer’ is commonly associated with engines, whereas in Spanish, the equivalent term ‘ingeniero’ carries a stronger connotation of ingenuity; that one must be capable of solving genuine challenges presented by the environment.”
Even to this day, she continues to experience the professional inclination of marveling at the construction of the infrastructures she encounters. While many of us perceive them as mere backdrops for our everyday activities, she wonders about the intricate process behind their creation. This curiosity struck her when she first visited the Guggenheim Museum in the Basque Country and wondered about the various challenges in constructing its distinctive curves. “Now that I don’t personally build, I still approach the works a bit like a retired person, looking at them from the outside to enjoy them,” she explains with a smile.
The art of building (and asking questions.)
Before arriving at ACCIONA, Elena was a “practicing engineer.” In fact, no sooner had she completed her degree in Valencia than she made the leap to Menorca in 2005 as part of a scholarship and, later, as site manager. She explains that she was lucky and did not experience significant discrimination as a novice or a woman. It was largely because she surrounded herself with a great team, with more experienced people who respected her knowledge. And, of course, the art of asking questions comes to the surface again: “It’s true that I always ask a lot of questions, and this is something I still do. I don’t pretend to know everything, but I ask what I don’t know; I try to accompany myself. Leadership well understood, she comes to tell us throughout the interview, is knowing how to learn and not being afraid to show it. Or, in other words, knowing how to show your vulnerability.
At that stage, she also enjoyed the opportunity to manage all the processes globally: “Being such a small site […] you had to manage the whole team, from the relationship with the client, the execution itself, your construction team”. And she adds: “It was one of the best moments, in the sense that you can develop the entire project, they give you the plans and the specifications and say: ‘And now this is being built.’ And you start to see it grow, to see that first they excavate, and then it emerges and looks like something. In the end, the civil work is imposing. When you finish a structure, something is left; you have done something, and people can see it […]. It’s that feeling of your children saying: ‘Mommy built that bridge.’”
Ingenuity and engineering.
But what do those first roads and bridges she built have in common with her current position, which is closer to robotics, artificial intelligence, and the metaverse? She gives us the key: “In English, the word ‘engineer’ is commonly associated with engines, whereas in Spanish, the equivalent term ‘ingeniero’ carries a stronger connotation of ingenuity; that one must be capable of solving genuine challenges presented by the environment.” It is there, in the resolution of challenges from an innovative point of view, also marked by sustainability, where she has managed to capitalize on that ingenuity.
Solving challenges through innovation would also be critical for an initial turnaround in her engineering career. In the early 2010s, an unprecedented real estate crisis rocked most of the world’s economies. Elena and her husband were no strangers to it. They decided to move to Madrid and explore the possibilities of shifting away from the construction site and opening new paths in the same company, but oriented towards new technologies: “I took advantage of all the knowledge I had of the infrastructure world to think about how technology could change the way things were done, from drones to augmented reality, robotics, 3D printing, autonomous vehicles […]. I realized that what you’ve advanced in your career path gives you resources to keep moving forward and reshape yourself; I said goodbye to the physical and moved into the digital world.” she was also laying the foundations – this time metaphorically – for her leap to ACCIONA.
“I leveraged all the knowledge I had about the world of infrastructure to envision how technology could change the way things were done.”
Four years ago, a newly created department in her current company crossed her path: the Digital Hub. At that first meeting, she was asked a question that sounded like a blank check: “What do you want ACCIONA’s Smart Cities department to be like?” Elena embraced this new professional phase without any hesitation. However, instead of constructing physical structures, she would focus on building a department and fostering an innovation philosophy this time. Initially, the team consisted of just a dozen individuals, but over the past four years, the staff has tripled in size. They have also stopped talking about Smart cities to focus on the Smart society. How and why can a company have such a large-scale impact? And she goes on to explain.
Today, I have been to the future.
“In the end, a company like ours has the advantage that we are the perfect scenario to test Smart cities: we have lighting, we have cleaning, we have a lot of mobility solutions that are being used in an ACCIONA context. And that was a tremendous advantage in the quest for new technology that would change the day-to-day life of cities”. This translates into numerous initiatives that help each area, be it Energy, Infrastructure, or Water, to face their challenges with an innovative perspective.
A basic example would be a comprehensive rehabilitation project that ACCIONA has undertaken in a building in Seville. There, her colleagues have proposed the creation of a 3D-printed bench for the central courtyard: a unique, custom-made piece without the corset of standard formwork.
We asked her which are the most disruptive technologies, and she initially opted for the metaverse. And not because of the technology per se but because of its practical application and the collaborative approach it brings to them. “We are using it for remote meetings, for teams that have to work together […] for the training of operators who have to face situations with machinery in which they normally cannot be trained and that the fact of doing it virtually is the closest thing to a real experience”. She adds that this combination of collaboration and immersion allows you to have a “teacher in front of you who is guiding you […], someone who knows how to correct you at the moment”.
Another of the mainstays they are developing in the metaverse are digital twins, i.e., reliable recreations of physical environments that allow modeling a facility’s operation and even intervening in its procedures. In this sense, they are developing digital twins of tunnel boring machines that will enable teams to visualize their behavior together from different locations.
“To the younger generations, I would say not to let others or themselves impose barriers, and always to have a thirst for learning, to ask questions, and to seek answers.”
One of the experiences that has marked her the most in terms of technological innovation is using the first augmented reality devices. “I remember perfectly the first day I tried on the first Microsoft HoloLens […]. I remember they gave us a demo in which you saw as if you were an air traffic controller: the flights, the origin, destination, where they were at every moment […]. I remember that day I said: today I have been in the future”.
And she tells us, of course, about how artificial intelligence is helping them to analyze millions of data points in their day-to-day work to draw conclusions where they used to rely exclusively on experience. From tenders and technical specifications to the execution of projects, AI is already the present: “There is real progress in these very rapid conclusions; artificial intelligence is already helping to speed up all these processes,” she says.
If AI analysis is essential, the predictive dimension is no less so. Specifically, they use artificial intelligence to predict weather factors and their impact on roads. For example, how a snowfall can affect a stretch of road and how to anticipate the use of snow melting and snowplows.
A message for the next generation.
The interview concludes with a reflection on the intersection between conceptual and technological innovation and the physical world, seeing things grow before your eyes and the impact of what you do in the real world. Elena says she sees computer scientists and developers jumping into big digital companies without understanding that they will be just another cog in the wheel, a digit lost in a sea of bits. “Here, you are going to do real projects. And on top of that, they let you put them in business, and the business person gets involved and tells you what their situation is; and then you prepare a development for them, and you are doing it with them, and you test it and you see it […]. It’s a bit like a construction site, where you see it completed”.
Today, her three children, still in school, are gradually beginning to envision their own professional future. She remembers that in her early days in Menorca she had to spend long days at the construction site and needed help to take care of her family while carrying out those infrastructure projects. Now her main concern is to help them in their studies together with her husband, to pass on knowledge and the desire to learn. This vision ties in with her latest reflection, this time with regard to ACCIONA and the new generations.
To those, to the youngest, to the newcomers to the world of work, she dedicates these words: “They should not let others or themselves impose barriers, and always have a thirst for learning, to ask questions, and to seek answers, that things do not always have to be done in this way. Of course, the desire to learn means that you don’t know everything, and you must listen.”
At ACCIONA we need the best professionals on our team, people who choose to invest their talent in generating a positive impact on the planet. Want to sign up for this commitment? See our job offers here