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Creativity, kindness and systems-thinking: the emergent skillset of the engineer delivering for the public good

08 November 2021

Four significant ICE programmes are converging this autumn to provide real clues as to the look and feel of a civil engineer operating in a future where people and the planet take precedence.

Creativity, kindness and systems-thinking: the emergent skillset of the engineer delivering for the public good
Digital skills are undoubtedly part of the future civil engineer skill set. Image credit: Shutterstock

As global leaders descend on Glasgow to discuss how to meaningfully tackle climate change, ICE is taking the opportunity to begin sharing the findings of Engineering Rebellion, an 18-month project to define the civil engineer of the future.

It is a directly relevant opportunity as the climate emergency was one of seven disrupters that emerged as certain to radically transform what society needs from its civil engineers as the project group explored the question, “how should ICE embrace the future civil engineer?”

ICE President’s Future Leader (2019/20) Hayley Jackson used the platform of the COP26 Built Environment Pavilion to outline Engineering Rebellion’s findings at a debate focused on empowering young people to become the climate-aware built environment professionals of the future.

This debate comes ahead of a formal launch in December to ICE Council and a VIP audience at One Great George Street, where Jackson and others in the project team will explain the thinking that leads them to ultimately conclude that the institution could benefit from focusing as much on the infrastructure team as the individual.

This conclusion builds from the key messages that the biggest challenges the future civil engineer will face are inherently multidisciplinary, that collaborative delivery is not a fad but a necessity, that technological change will only accelerate, and that what people want from infrastructure will continue to become more complex.

And these messages are echoed in other ICE programmes converging this autumn.


Last month, a debate during the South East Asia leg of the Brunel International Lecture series centred on the need for engineering to become more of a creative profession, and not just a “commodity”.

Ali Minhas, ICE country representative for Vietnam and technical director for maritime at RHDHV, spoke of how Vietnam had risen very quickly from one of the poorest countries in the region to a middle-income country, but how this rapid development has come at a cost, and how the impact of infrastructure projects could be seen already in increased flooding, pollution, and traffic.

“How often do we think beyond the application of code and the need to secure the project?” he reflected in explaining why it is for this reason that today's engineering is largely considered as a commodity, and not a creative profession.

His views were echoed by Gandhi Suppiah, chair of ICE Malaysia and head of transportation for SE Asia at TSA Management, who said that the perception that engineering was not creative was putting students off studying the subject.


Meanwhile, this year’s ICE Awards, also held last month, for the first time specifically shone a spotlight on collaborative behaviours through the new Bev Waugh Award, introduced to recognise a leader or individual who quietly broadened the perspective of the team, leads with kindness, values the views of others, and constructively questions the status quo to create a people-centred, ‘best for project’ culture.

Winner Shaahid Ismail, senior project engineer for Connect Plus Service, was hailed as embodying the spirit of this award and exemplifies how, as someone just 10 years into their career, is bringing new skills to the fore.


And the significance of technological change and the complexity of what society wants from infrastructure as a system was not lost at recent round table debate convened by the Data & Digital Community Advisory Board.

There, the debate centred on how the growth in “democratised data” was providing new ways to drive the behaviours of infrastructure users, but also was raising new ethical questions around how data is used.

Rikesh Shah, head of commercial innovation at Transport for London and co-chair of the advisory board, described how the transport operator was able to dynamically control demand during Covid, based on the information it was providing to apps such as Google Maps and Citymapper. This allowed it to relieve pressure by directing customers around before they even got to stations.

It is unquestionably a valuable tool, but also brings a whole new ethical dilemma for infrastructure professionals. It also raises the obvious question that was forefront in the mind throughout Engineering Rebellion: what if the future civil engineer isn’t about building at all?

Read the Engineering Rebellion report

  • Mark Hansford, director of engineering knowledge at Institution of Civil Engineers