Watch our recent Smeaton lecture again

The recent Smeaton Lecture covered the immense success engineering consultancies have had globally over the past 200 years, and how the huge firms of today were formed as a result of dissolving rules.

The Smeaton Lecture 2020
The Smeaton Lecture 2020

Consulting engineers are a crucial, independent voice, giving impartial advice on large building and civil engineering projects, for the peace of mind of all. 

That was the view of engineering historian and leading author Hugh Ferguson in delivering the 2020 Smeaton Lecture recently.

The lecture told the extraordinary story of British consulting engineers from their early beginnings, through the establishment of the profession in the 18th century, the ‘Railway Age’ of the 1800s, their post-WWII international boom and on to the recent commercialisation and consolidation of the industry.

You can watch the lecture in full below.

Smeaton Lecture 2020: The Consulting Engineers. The British consulting engineers who created the world’s infrastructure from ICE Group on Vimeo.

Ferguson summarised how Britain had great success in the field of consulting engineers, especially in the 19th century, based on three key factors: 

  • The Industrial Revolution happened here and Britain was first to reap the benefits
  • London was the centre of the financial world, making it relatively easy to achieve funding for projects
  • There was a tendency towards using British engineers, who gave confidence to financial backers

He went on to explore the change of corporate entities over time, reflecting on the three core rules in the Association for Consultancy & Engineering’s original Code of Conduct that lasted until the 1980s:

  • No fee competition
  • No advertising of services
  • No limit to legal liability

A panel discussion followed the lecture exploring how these lessons from the past can inform future civil engineering practice. The discussion was chaired by ICE President Paul Sheffield with contributions from Ferguson, fellow engineering historian Mike Chrimes and the ICE President’s Future Leaders.

A key theme was the quest for net-zero carbon. As Sheffield described it there is quite literally the scope for engineers to “save the world”.

Chrimes, a former ICE Director of Knowledge, reflected how civil engineering luminaries such as Smeaton and Thomas Telford were engaged in carbon reduction as long as 200 years ago, with Smeaton carrying out research into the efficiency of wind and waterpower and Telford writing a report on (wind)mills. He added they would have been guided to solutions through empirical research, just as engineers must be today.

New remote working norm

The discussion moved on to how the lockdown has affected civil engineers’ working practices, with leadership highlighted as a key aspect in how to navigate the ‘new normal’, while earning how to engender trust and joint enterprise remotely will also present a challenge.

Among the potential positives were a growth in contact pools and new global opportunities opened as a result of the switch to remote working, ensuring a quicker transition to the ‘storming’ stage of team development.

Below is a selection of lecture question highlights.

As with every part of engineering, women are outnumbered by men due to history but are there any notable women you would like to mention?

Our book does say something about women consulting engineers. The historic role of women may have been undervalued by eg looking for women engineering graduates, or membership of professional engineering institutions (PEIs), rather than looking at how women might have played 'backroom' roles vital to a family business- eg Smeaton's daughters helping with preparing drawings. Internationally Emily Roebling is an outstanding nineteenth century example. The Womens Engineering Society provides some great examples.

HF: Electrical engineering was quicker to embrace women than civils, and an outstanding early example was Rachel Parsons (daughter of Charles Parsons, the inventor of the steam turbine) who was a director of her father’s company, and a founder member of the WES. Interestingly, one of the TBMs currently driving the Thames Tideway tunnels is named ‘Rachel’ after her, celebrating the women-only engineering works she established in Fulham, directly overhead! Others I’d include would be Dorothy Buchanan, the first woman ICE member, and Molly Ferguson, senior partner of Blyth and Blyth. But these were the exceptions. As late as the mid 60s my cohort of undergraduates at UCL had (if I remember correctly) not a single woman – in civil, mechanical or electrical. Things have changed out of all recognition since then, though I suspect there is still an issue of retention of good women engineers.

How much do you think the ongoing ‘working from home’ will help or hinder learning by early career professionals?

Education establishments and businesses are going to have to readjust, and possibly ICE reconsider its criteria for assessing education and training, but COVID has probably only accelerated pre-existing trends. When one considers how many early engineers 'learned' , much was done through reading and individual experimentation, but many models of innovation assume serendipity through close proximity to many bright minds- it is yet to be demonstrated how this can be done remotely.

HF: And just about everybody agrees, and has agreed over the centuries, that an essential ingredient of an engineer’s development is practical experience. That cannot be done by working from home.

With the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence (AI), what do think of the future of consultancy and civil/structural engineering as a whole?

The Susskinds' 'Future of the professions', suggests many engineering services will be automated with consequent deskilling, but that some bespoke services will remain important. If the analysis is correct it suggests a world of niche firms, and large businesses offering a range of services based around AI and IT systems.

HF: Agreed. The answer, at least in part, is that consulting engineers should be leading the adoption of AI, not reacting to it. Last week I was talking to two bright engineers in their 20s, one working for a major UK consulting engineer, the other for a leading multinational professional services firm (not in construction). The former had a personal annual training budget of £500, the latter £10,000. This is not the case of the consulting engineer being mean: fees are tight, and the firm could not afford to invest much more in training. But guess which of the two organisations would be most likely to have the staff best-equipped for leading the adoption of AI! It’s an issue, but I don’t have the answer!

With the move to Design and Build contracts is there likely to be a permanent integration of consulting engineers and construction contractors?

Design and build has always existed in the industry, but independent consultants have argued they can provide better value independent design. There is plenty of room for coexistence.

HF: That’s what contractor Balfour Beatty thought when they bought US consulting engineer Parsons Brinckerhoff in 2009. Integration didn’t seem to work, and they sold PB on to consulting engineers WSP, whose chairman Chris Cole told me: ‘I don’t believe the two (consulting and contracting) go together, or ever will go together. Some say customers want a ‘one stop shop’ for design and construction, but I disagree and so far I’ve been proved right!’ He may be right.

With the move to Design and Build contracts is there likely to be a permanent integration of consulting engineers and construction contractors?

There are new practices and partnerships being established all the time, but generally in a specialist or local area, establishing a general consultancy on a national scale would be difficult without taking established reputations from existing practices with a recognised client base. However the world of BIM and zero carbon are creating lots of opportunities based around innovation.

HF: It probably will be more difficult in the future. But equally, as we have seen in many industries, the largest of firms can suffer sudden commercial or reputational damage, or simply ossify over time, and there will always be scope to replace them.

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