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R&D at EDF

By January 1, 2021April 28th, 2021EXIST

A Day in the Life of….


David Ferguson is the Head of Digital Innovation in Research and Development at the energy company, EDF.  This global company is the largest producer of electricity in the UK and the largest supplier of electricity and gas, and is building the Hinkley C nuclear powerplant in Somerset.  The Company employs 15,000 people and its UK offices are in London, Crawley, Barnwood, and Exeter.

Insight caught up with David to find out more about his work

What are your main tasks each day?

Typically, I spend time with my team discussing new technologies and concepts and new project ideas; I will meet with an interesting startup and chat with academic partners. I’m really lucky in that I get to talk with many very smart people – I am invariably the oldest and the least-qualified in the room! We’ve adopted some very modern ways of working so I thankfully spend only a small amount of time writing emails.

What are you currently working on?

The big topics are virtual reality (VR), blockchain, and artificial intelligence (AI). AI is going to change the world in ways we can’t even imagine yet.

Career highlight to date?

I started my career as an environmentalist and have many good memories: I lived and worked in Paris for two years, which was an amazing experience. I attend the Rio+20 Earth Summit and hosted a televised panel discussion, in French, live from the conference centre – possibly the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve done! Since moving into digital innovation I’ve had the opportunity to work on projects with some cutting edge tech but giving evidence to the new All Party Parliamentary Group on AI was pretty cool!

What advice would you give to any young people considering a career in R&D or digital innovation?

Every child at school should learn to code. It is as important as learning to read or write. In EDF Energy’s R&D team there are people researching jellyfish (it’s a long story), and people forecasting the weather, and people modelling the way graphite cracks inside nuclear reactors – and they all do that using the coding language Python. Other than that I would say that everyone is good at something. So try lots of things until you discover your something.


What does your work space look like?

I have four workspaces:  my desk in Exeter, which is inside our call centre next to the motorway; my team’s office in Brighton, which is a funky innovation space with lots of beanbags and whiteboards and suchlike; my home office which is full of books  and broken electrical gadgetry; and a seat on the Southwest Trains service to London! I generally spend 500 hours a year on that train.               

Who has influenced you most in your career?

Mother Nature. I’m a keen climber and surfer and have travelled the world. I’ve seen the stunning beauty and diversity of the Earth and that motivated me to try to keep it special.

What do you wish other people knew about your place of work/your type of work?

It’s even more fun than it sounds!

If you could be anyone for a day who would it be?

I hate to be predictable but I’d quite like to be Elon Musk for a day. He’s got his finger in so many interesting pies (electric vehicles, space travel, solar power, artificial intelligence…) that his day must be fantastically stimulating.


What is your favourite aspect of the job?

Coming up with ideas and having a team with the skills to turn those ideas into reality. You know when you think: I wish there was an app for that. We often think that and 12 hours later, tada, there is an app for that!

What were you good at School?

Rock climbing. Traditional school, and traditional school subjects, didn’t suit me very well.

When did you decide what you wanted to do career wise and how did you set about pursuing this goal?

I realised when I was travelling round the world that I wanted to work as an environmentalist so I went back to university and studied a Masters at Imperial College. That led me into consulting and then into EDF Energy.

Being an environmentalist in a big energy company is quite hard. I spent all of my time persuading people to do things differently.  I realised that the internet offered this amazing possibility to solve some big, serious problems like climate change and inequality. So I moved into R&D about 4 years ago and took over this position in early 2016.

What are your next steps? /Where do you see yourself/the business/industry in five years’ time?

The energy industry is really changing. The way we produce electricity needs to change really quickly if we are going to avoid catastrophic climate change. We also need to change the way we use energy but energy efficiency is a topic that 99% of people find boring and complicated.  We are looking for the way to make energy efficiency completely effortless and I think that Artificial Intelligence is the key. That’s my mission.

Why Exeter?  When did you come to Exeter? Why did you choose Exeter?

I used to live in London and Paris. My weekdays consisted of: get up, cycle across town to work trying not to die, work until 7pm, go to the pub, cycle back home, eat some food, watch some TV, and then go to bed. There was no time for anything else. In Exeter I can work until 4pm, jump in the car and drive to the north coast and surf until it’s dark. And at weekends we can go wild camping on Dartmoor . On the downside, Exeter could definitely do with a more diverse independent restaurant scene (with at least one top-notch fish and chip shop please) and better cycle routes. But on balance, the quality of life here is just brilliant.