Global Student Challenge 2017 – A perspective from Cameron MacKenzie and Team Kier

It was the 7 April 2017, and what would otherwise have been a completely normal afternoon, had turned into an anxious wait in anticipation of some news – big news! Finally, at 16:47 the email I had been expecting popped up, subject header; You’re a Global Student Challenge Finalist! By the narrowest of margins, we had done it – we were going to Hong Kong!

It had taken six intense weeks to qualify, through trialling – where we repeated the first round continually to optimise our decisions – followed by five weeks of competition against the computer’s AI and being ranked against the forty-three other teams. After three weeks, we appeared on the leader board (top ten) and the remaining three weeks we climbed and held on to 6th position – just enough to see us to the final!

Sunday 17 July, although battling with jetlag, we arrived excited and hopeful in a rainy and quite literally electric Hong Kong. Our hotel was nestled in the Sai Wan district of the city, and team Kier spent the day exploring the area and sampling some of the local cuisine – which was delicious! That evening we got to know the other contestants over drinks and canapes, and were introduced to the competition organisers – but it didn’t take long for us to retire to our beds after a long and exciting day.

Monday was the beginning of competition, but it was also the first opportunity to set foot on the incredible campus of the University of Hong Kong, our competition hosts. Campus is accessed via a long underground tunnel and a lift, seemingly emerging in the clouds onto a terrace cut into the mountain with spectacular views across the city. The effect was made greater by the exotic plants and landscaping, giving the distinct feeling of being in a natural hideaway.

However, there was little time for gawking and after a quick update of the rules the teams were free to pick a room and begin working on their first submission. Despite the pressure, team Kier began strongly through the early rounds, fluctuating between 2nd and 4th but never quite claiming the top spot. Nobody anticipated just how close the competition was going to be! A new feature for 2017 was to conceal points and only display position, so the gap between teams was unknown. This made the rounds incredibly tense, and extremely tough to judge the level of risk necessary to climb the leader board. Five of the ten final rounds were squeezed in to Monday, and by close of play the hours of focused concentration and pressure had made us all braindead – but not enough so to stop us exploring the bustling city at night.

Fortunately, Tuesday offered a respite from the intense conditions with only two rounds in a morning session. By afternoon we were rewarded with a site visit to the Fire and Ambulance Services Academy, which proved fascinating to gain an insight into the training of Hong Kong’s firemen and the advanced facilities at their disposal – which was the focus of the visit. Tuesday was also the cultural evening, where the contestants were treated to an exotic buffet meal on the aptly named Jumbo Floating Restaurant. Here we were joined by CIOB Past Presidents Paul Nash and Chris Chivers, who sat with us and offered a wealth of entertaining and enlightening stories.

Wednesday was our last chance to make an impact on the leader board, but the competition was held off until the evening to give the participants the chance to attend a networking and mentoring session with Paul, Chris and newly arrived Past President Martin Chambers. This trio spoke on various topics which were important to their cause, as well as hosting a Q&A for all the curious young challengers to fire in some tough questions – receiving some excellent advice in return. However, it wasn’t long before we returned to the fray to finish the last two rounds; to be submitted from the comfort of our hotel. Since the game had entered the final stages, everybody struggled to win work and we were no exception. Even with profit margins plummeting to 0%, the flow of work began to dry up. A major client that we had targeted and worked hard to establish a ‘Perfect’ relationship with, decided twice to award critical projects to opposition with a higher bid. Now we were really on the ropes and fighting for survival. But so were the others, and as performance dipped we miraculously held our own even after falling to a worrying 5th place. The winner however, would not be revealed until the following evening.

Thursday began early with a bus ride to the second site visit, this time to explore one of the city’s major residential developments – a series of apartment blocks in various stages of development. We were taught about the modular elements of the build and briefed on the strict programme of deliveries, installations and construction that functioned on an unwavering six-day cycle. Once back in the hotel we were given the rest of the day to relax and prepare for the big awards ceremony. The rain held off as the teams arrived in taxis later that evening, dressed in black tie to match the flashy hotel playing host for the night. A lavish three course meal was served and again we had the opportunity to share our tables with the past presidents. However, no sooner had we finished the final bite of our dessert when positions began to be called out. 6th place, not us! 5th place, not us! 4th place – still not us! 3rd place – Team Kier! We congratulated each other as we made our way to the stage and received a medallion and certificate from Paul Nash. Overall, we were pleased with 3rd place in what could easily be described as a battle to downsize our companies most effectively in very difficult market conditions.

Finishing 3rd proved that Team Kier was up to the task and that we didn’t scrape through qualification by chance. The real victory however, was the opportunity to meet some fantastic new people and the lessons we learnt along the way. It required a massive team effort and many hours of dedicated work to even make the final, of which we were rewarded with an epic week in Hong Kong. It truly was a challenge! If there are any students reading this I urge you to gather a team and enter the competition yourself – you won’t regret it!

Cameron MacKenzie – Team Kier (Loughborough University)