Civil engineers must adhere to three key principles
13 March 2014
Author: Geoff French BSc (Eng) CEng FICE, 149th president of the Institution of Civil Engineers
Some say that an engineer won’t tell you what 2+2 is without asking what factor of safety you’d like built into the answer. Or that an engineer is just someone who solves a problem you didn’t know you had – and solves it in a way you don’t understand.
So, even where engineers get credit for our technical skills, we’re not always good at explaining how civil engineering is relevant to people’s lives. It’s up to us to change that view.
When the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) was founded in 1818, there were only two engineering disciplines – military and civil – which is why many of our early presidents were mechanical or electrical engineers like George and Robert Stephenson. Today, there are several other engineering institutions, but civil engineering remains a vast umbrella term, with many related specialities falling within it. As a result, civil engineers of the 21st century must possess a wide range of business and interpersonal skills, as well as technical expertise.
The passing of time brings many changes, but some things remain the same. Much as they have always done, civil engineers still have a collective responsibility to extend the horizons of society. Great civil engineers of the past did this: making the impossible possible. But undisputed pioneers though they were, the problems that they faced during the Industrial Revolution are not the same as the ones society faces today.
Engineering solutions have to adapt to always be relevant to the issues of the day. We must always take a long-term approach to dealing with those issues because nobody else will.
That need for a long-term approach means that the days when each ICE President plotted his or her own course for ICE are over. Now, we have an extremely effective Presidential and Vice Presidential team. You could liken the role of ICE Presidents and Vice Presidents to that of a group of guest conductors of an orchestra. We’re all following the same music, but we each have our own ideas about how to produce the best possible performance.
We seek to position ICE as an organisation ready to meet the infrastructure challenges posed by our fast-changing global community and continue extending the horizons of society. We can achieve this by emphasising three key principles that provide an alternative definition of ICE: integrity, communication and engagement.
- FIRST KEY PRINCIPLE – INTEGRITY
Integrity is not a word that civil engineers tend to use every day. In most cases it’s something we take for granted – yet we should recognise that it’s vital to everything we want to achieve. ICE is, and should always remain, an independent, politically neutral, professional body – not a pressure group or trade association. Our commitment to this principle has never changed, but the definition of what is meant by Integrity continues to evolve.
Integrity, of course, means being ethical. But it also embraces the need to be sustainable in what we build – and to support the diversity of engineering talents and backgrounds. Professional Integrity is what gives you your strength. It’s what gives you lasting value.
But our integrity as civil engineers can become stifled by lack of continuing professional development (CPD). CPD isn’t about form filling and box ticking. It’s about taking charge of your working life, your goals and your aspirations. It’s about increasing your value and competitiveness.
We know we must adhere to the highest principles of ethical conduct, because civil engineering has such a direct and vital impact on the living standards of everybody. The economic and environmental consequences that can occur as a result of what we do – or what we don’t do – cannot be overestimated. As members of ICE, we also seek to influence the practices of our profession, our employers and wider society for the better.
One example of this is the joint ICE-Government Infrastructure Cost Review. It’s shown that poor procurement practice and low levels of supply chain integration prevent us from fully releasing the expertise and innovation we need to get better value for money from infrastructure investment. It’s assumed that civil engineers will always continue to have a genuine interest in finding the best possible solutions and always take pride in their work.
In other words, it’s taken as read that integrity is reflected in everything we do. So what happens when it isn’t?
The scale of waste caused by lack of integrity in infrastructure planning, decision-making, implementation and management is a huge problem. In developing countries, the risks of ineffective and inefficient project delivery are even higher. As global infrastructure investments shift geographically from developed to developing economies, civil engineers’ integrity in building infrastructure that meets the current and future needs of communities, will be greatly tested.
Funding these global infrastructure needs is not going to be easy. McKinsey has estimated that an incredible $57 trillion of global infrastructure investment is needed from now until 2030, just to keep up with projected global GDP growth. It has also estimated that productivity improvements could reduce this figure by as much as $17 trillion, to a still enormous $40 trillion, over the same period.
The challenge of finding the necessary funding is made even more difficult by corruption. The amount of money wasted in the construction sector worldwide by corruption is estimated to be a staggering $340 billion per annum.
In many countries, there’s a stark ‘infrastructure gap’ between infrastructure needs and levels of investment. We see it everywhere – potholes and congested roads; creaking waste treatment facilities and crowded railways; bridges that need repair; water leakage and power stations reaching the end of their operational lives. By taking our infrastructure for granted, we create bigger problems for ourselves in the long run.
In the developing world, countries must dedicate a large part of their national budget to providing basic needs like access to water and sanitation, electricity and all-weather roads – and yet:
- More than one billion people around the world lack access to roads;
- 1.2 billion don’t have safe drinking water;
- 2.3 billion have no reliable sources of energy;
- 2.4 billion lack sanitation facilities; and
- Four billion are without modern digital communication services.
A lack of infrastructure means that companies who struggle to produce and sell goods in an area with failing roads, electricity or water supply just don’t want to set up the factories or businesses that would create jobs, improve living standards and reduce poverty.
A lack of roads or bridges makes hospitals inaccessible, so people can’t access the medical services they need, which increases mortality rates.
Using our integrity to help create intelligently planned, resilient, future-proof infrastructure, which is targeted to communities’ real needs, extends the horizons of the whole of society. So, integrity is fundamental to what we do – and who we are – as civil engineers.
Membership of ICE can help us hone that integrity and provide the essential skills to design and create sustainable infrastructure. This is why we have launched ‘Shaping the World’ – our most ambitious and aspirational development programme to date, which we hope will provide a legacy for future generations.
‘Shaping the World’ aims to allow us to build capacity, inspire the next generation and further our charitable objective of providing society with the technical solutions it needs. We plan to create a range of international partnerships to identify the areas and projects where we can have the most impact. Our aim is to become increasingly recognised globally as the qualifying body across the whole the built environment.
So, integrity is implicit in the way we work now and in the future, and we need to continue to apply it to our working practices here and across the world. But integrity on its own isn’t enough. If we’re going to extend the horizons of society and engineer the world of the future, we also need to communicate better with those outside our profession.
- SECOND KEY PRINCIPLE – COMMUNICATION
Communication has many different target audiences. These include members, prospective members, students, academia, policy makers, industry, clients, multinationals, investors and of course communities and wider society. These different audiences need to be addressed in different ways – there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the issue of communication.
ICE is committed to informing opinion, raising the profile of civil engineering and communicating with members and potential members. But the larger an organisation becomes and the longer it continues, the more likely it is to become inward-facing.
We rightly cherish our rich heritage, but we must embrace 21st-century communication tools. I’m the first to recognise that people of my generation aren’t necessarily the most appropriate to assess the latest communication tools, which is why this is one of the tasks I’ll be asking my Presidential Apprentices to look into this year. We need to keep the ICE facing outwards because as civil engineers, we can’t meet the future head on if we have our heads in the sand.
Professional integrity gives communication authenticity and meaning. The ability to communicate to the public will help change perceptions of civil engineers. Remember, pessimists think a glass is half empty, but the engineer knows it’s the glass that’s the wrong size.
We look at problems in a different, more constructive way, but we also need to overturn the idea that engineers aren’t creative or that we can only relate to machines, not people. One of my President’s Apprentices, Sakthy Selvakumaran, summed up our challenge well: engineers are good at technology, but we need to be good at people too!
One example of inventive communication is ICE’s ‘This is Civil Engineering’ campaign. Launched in Wales last year, the campaign displays banners and signboards at civil engineering project sites during a project’s construction phase and on its completion. The signage features a ‘Quick Response’ code which links to a dedicated page on the ICE website explaining more about civil engineering.
It’s a simple way of communicating what civil engineering is and increasing awareness of its importance to society, by showing people that local infrastructure projects in their area are delivered by civil engineers. A better appreciation of what is being done, and why, makes people more understanding of the reasons for disruption during the construction phase.
However, carefully nurtured professional integrity and innovative, targeted communication will only take us so far in achieving our goals of extending the horizons of society and engineering the world of the future. Another of my President’s Apprentices, Melanie Ogden, quoted George Bernard Shaw in her application: “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion it has taken place.”
- THIRD KEY PRINCIPLE – ENGAGEMENT
The value of engineering knowledge and solutions depends on them being communicated effectively to an engaged audience. So, engagement allows the voice of ICE and of members to not just be heard, but to be heeded. Engagement is about making the best use of integrity and communication to ensure that civil engineers aren’t operating in a vacuum.
Many of us are already engaged in understanding how necessary civil engineering and infrastructure are for a society to function – transporting resources, people, produce and trade goods, providing essential services and ultimately reducing poverty. Around the world and across the centuries, bridges, railways, highways, ports and airports have been built to facilitate the ever-increasing pace of human progress.
Cities just couldn’t exist or have flourished without intelligent, resilient, targeted infrastructure. Take Amsterdam, which, of course, lies below sea level. Contrastingly, when infrastructure is found wanting, the consequences are, sadly, catastrophic – like New Orleans after Katrina and New York, which didn’t seem to realise it was below sea level until Superstorm Sandy struck.
Civil engineers have a responsibility to use their integrity to communicate these realities and engage people in showing how civil engineering and infrastructure are directly relevant to their lives. In doing this, we’ll be capitalising on what we’ve seen in recent years – a renewed appreciation from politicians from all parties of the infrastructure that our industry plans, designs and builds. Infrastructure has gone from being the most important thing people never thought about to an issue of political significance and debate.
We know from our work with the World Bank, the World Federation of Engineering Organisations and the United Nations that there is global recognition of the incredible transformative effect that infrastructure can have in extending the horizons of society. Governments around the world are witnessing rapid social and economic improvements to the lives of their citizens – as a result of civil engineers making the impossible possible.
In sub-Saharan Africa, infrastructure development has accounted for around half of the continent’s acceleration in economic growth. From 1990-2005, China invested around $600 billion to upgrade its road system and connect all of its larger cities. It’s estimated that aggregate Chinese real income is now around 6% higher than it would have been if the expressway network hadn’t been built.
Infrastructure access also has many major social implications, like increasing gender equality. For women – who make up two thirds of the world’s poorest and who have the least access to economic infrastructure – it can free them up to go out to work and enjoy more free time, vastly improving their quality of life.
For example, South Africa’s rural electrification programme helped increase women’s labour force participation by nearly 10% in just five years. In Nepal, the provision of clean drinking water has significantly increased the number of girls in secondary education, as they used to be the ones taken out of school for the daily trek to fetch water.
As you may know, a few years ago, British Medical Journal readers chose the provision of clean water and sewage disposal (which it called the ‘sanitary revolution’) as the most important medical milestone since the journal was first produced in 1840 – ahead of antibiotics and anaesthesia. Remember, it’s said that engineers have saved more lives than doctors.
But also remember that the right civil-engineering solutions for developing countries aren’t necessarily the same solutions that developed countries adopted in the past. For example, Africa has managed to avoid putting telephone wires across the continent by going straight to mobile phone technology.
Our members are essential to making our engagement informed, knowledgeable and rooted in practical solutions. This is where these three principles link back to each other, because our communication and engagement will only be successful if they continue to be supported by our integrity.
If we’re to become the built environment institution of choice that’s well placed to tackle global challenges, then we also need to be mindful of perspective. When the ICE was formed, the world’s population had just passed 1 billion people for the first time. There are now seven times that number and it may well have reached 10 billion by the year 2050.
The challenges we face aren’t the same as those that faced the great civil engineers of the past – ours are arguably larger and more urgent. We need to develop solutions faster, more imaginatively and share them with colleagues around the world.
I’ve told you how we’re planning to position ICE as an organisation ready to meet the challenges posed by our fast-changing global community – and continue the work our members have done for some 200 years in extending the horizons of society through our integrity, communication and engagement.
This leads me to ask you, our members: what does ICE mean to you? How might you be able to help us deliver our aims? To shamelessly paraphrase JFK, it’s not just about what ICE can do for you, but what you can do for ICE. The things we need to do aren’t something for ‘them’ – a faceless ICE – to address. It’s a challenge for all of us.
Remember, that through integrity, communication and engagement, we can combine the tools of today with a vision of tomorrow, to engineer the world of the future.
Geoff French is a civil engineering graduate who joined Scott Wilson in 1968. In 1995, he was appointed to managing director, initially of the business in the UK. He oversaw the growth of the Scott Wilson business both in the UK and the major international business centres. He was appointed chair in 2002 and he oversaw the tripling of the group revenue and the highly successful flotation in March 2006. In 2008, he became non-executive chair of the Group.
In 2005, he was elected to the Executive Committee of the International Federation of Consulting Engineers and was its president from 2011 to 2013. He is also a past chair of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering in the UK. He became a vice president of the Institution of Civil Engineers in November 2008 and president in November 2013.
This article is an abridged version of Geoff French’s ICE Presidential Address, which took place in 22 Clyde Road on 21 February, 2014.
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