We increasingly recognise that infrastructure performs best when it’s the product of multiple inputs from a very wide range of professionals. Should ICE become the Institution of Infrastructure Delivery and broaden its membership?
The other day as I walked up the stairs in One Great George Street towards the Members’ Library - walking is good for me apparently so I avoided the lift - I was under the gaze of the great and the good past presidents.
I noticed that apart from the fact that they were nearly all men, and pretty fierce looking, there were many ’Sirs’ and ’Professors’ and even the occasional ’Lord’. Not quite so many recently; maybe a reflection of the changing perception of value to society of civil engineering?
Infrastructure deficit as absence of built things
I thought back to when I started as a water engineer over 35 years ago when British engineers were still working all over the world. We were still very much in the mode of “directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man”.
Many of the projects we worked on until the 1990s would not and could not be built today.
But in the 1980s, there was a view that in Africa for example, there was a massive infrastructure deficit, things needed to be built and we could do it. And things – towns, bridges, roads, dams, irrigation systems, hospitals, schools, airports, ports, water supplies, sanitation systems – were indeed built.
Some things were more successful than others, with longer term benefits; roads, bridges, ports, airports, for example, seem to have in many cases creaked a bit, but delivered connectivity, increased trade and economic growth.
Past simplicity due to past ignorance?
It all felt simpler then, but that feeling was to some extent powered by ignorance: ignorance of the growing threat of climate changes, of the extraordinarily rapid rural-urban migration and the stresses that put onto urban planning and urban services, of the poorly understood fragility of interdependent eco-systems, community structures and urban institutions.?M
So, we made some mistakes. I don’t seek to excuse them, but maybe the dawning realisation that development through concrete is perhaps not the only way forward has led to a loss of confidence among British civil engineers on the one hand, and a loss of societal trust on the other?
Today’s world still has enormous infrastructural and institutional deficits, with poor and marginalised people all over the world struggling to get by, but British contractors are distinctly less visible outside UK. Instead, there’s a new group of contractors building things, with mixed success, as before.
British engineering still has a huge role to play, in this specific challenge, as in the global infrastructure sector more generally.
As the gap between availability of something and the need for it – land, energy, water, road space, funding etc – has become tighter, and the pressures of population growth and climate change increase, so the task of conceiving, developing and delivering more efficient, effective, sustainable, socially acceptable, resilient, inter-connected, future-ready schemes becomes more complex.
Our past and current experiences could be hugely valuable here, in emerging economies as well as ‘post-industrial’ ones.
Experience in design in the broadest sense
We’re already getting better at this in any case. It’s now an essential part of any project within the UK.
Our relatively densely populated island has many demanding, engaged, activist and media-wise groups and communities with whom civil engineers come into contact during projects.
Increasingly, our skills in these areas are constantly being tested and challenged, as is our need to work with and respect the inputs of ecologists, marine scientists, landscape architects, sociologists, health professionals, planners, local government, MPs, heritage groups and the like.
Good projects are those which are well-designed. And I mean designed in the broadest sense, with a secure understanding of the issues, obstacles, opportunities, inter-actions, vulnerabilities to be addressed now and in the future, before we rush to slap a planning application in!
We need this broad church of diverse and different skills, insights, knowledge and opinion to work together to define the work we are to design and deliver on behalf of and for the betterment of society.
So, should we open our arms and welcome more skills into the ICE – the Institution of Infrastructure Delivery maybe?