John Armitt to tell breakfast gathering 'it’s time to shake off our image as technical calculators and get better at communicating what we're trying to do and why we're doing it'

At an Engineers Ireland breakfast event to be held on Thursday, February 18, at 22 Clyde Road, among the many issues that ICE president Sir John Armitt will cover in his address – ‘Civil engineers: Shaping ourselves and our world’ – he will point out that engineers’ “ability to communicate is as important as their ability to calculate”.

“Throughout my career I’ve been lucky to have worked on some significant and high-profile infrastructure projects, not least the delivery of the venues and infrastructure for the 2012 London Olympic Games,” Sir John told the ‘Engineers Journal’. “Many have involved technical genius and ground-breaking engineering firsts.

‘Awe-inspired at structures like the Velodrome’

“The public were awe-inspired at structures like the Velodrome, and many would argue that the Olympics helped to thrust civil engineering into the spotlight. The projects shortlisted for the Engineers Ireland Excellence Awards also demonstrate leading-edge technology, innovation and restoration – showcasing to the public the very best of Irish engineering.

“However, when it comes to infrastructure development, the public are understandably less concerned with our technical genius and more concerned with the impact of our work. This is true anywhere in the world, and cuts across all types of infrastructure, whether we are talking about the Corrib gas pipeline or a new prison proposal for the outskirts of Dublin.

“I had the pleasure of being involved in what was the Channel Tunnel rail link, now referred to as HS1. This project, with its numerous route options and impact on local communities, was as much about public relations as engineering.

“At the time it entailed the largest ever environmental impact assessment. It required engineers to work closely with planners, property consultants, environmental specialists, parliamentary lawyers, heritage bodies and many other professionals. Yet when the BBC arrived to make a film about the project, there was dismay that very little of their filming focused on the detailed engineering work and technical input.

“We should not be discouraged by the fact that our work is often measured by its impact – both during construction and in operation. It’s the long-term benefit we bring that is important.

‘Public interest driven by fear of disruption as much as by promise of convenience and improved quality of life’

“Public interest in our work is as much driven by fear of disrupted lives as it is by a promise of convenience, speed or improved quality of life. This can make for compelling stories in the media. The challenge for us as civil engineers is to address these fears, not dismiss them as interference.

“Our ability to articulate our challenges in public, to explain – in plain language – what we are trying to achieve and why, to show empathy, to be prepared to consider alternative solutions and to put ourselves in the public’s shoes is absolutely vital if we are to gain sufficient political and popular support, without which major projects cannot proceed.

“Professional bodies like Engineers Ireland, ICE – and individual engineers – have an important role here. We must all do more to communicate the long-term benefits of investing in our infrastructure, and we must do it in a way that avoids technical and complicated language that people outside our industry do not understand or associate with.

“I come back to my point about the BBC coming to film the Channel Tunnel project. They were less focused on filming the technical engineering because this is less likely to engage the ‘mainstream’ viewer. The BBC knew the public would be more interested in the people, the personalities, the relationships on site, why we are doing something and the challenge of working together to make it happen– the human angle.

“It’s time for us to get more ‘tuned in’ to how we engage with the public. It’s time for us to shake off our image as the ‘technical calculators’ and get better at communicating who we are, what we are trying to do and importantly, why we are doing it.”

About the speaker

Sir John Armitt has made a significant contribution to Britain’s infrastructure and led the team responsible for constructing venues, facilities and transport systems for the London 2012 Olympics. As chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), Sir John played a major role in the success of London 2012, ensuring the Olympic Park was completed on time and under budget. The complex included the Olympic Stadium, Aquatics Centre, Velopark, media centre and athletes’ village.

He joined John Laing Construction as a graduate and worked on various projects, including the Sizewell B nuclear power station. He was later appointed chairman of the Laing International and civil engineering divisions. He has a strong background in railway engineering and has been chief executive at Union Railways (responsible for developing the high-speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link), Railtrack and Network Rail (Railtrack’s successor), which runs the UK’s railway system.

In 1997 Sir John was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his contribution to the rail industry and, five years later, he received a knighthood for services to engineering and construction. He is well recognised within the civil engineering community for his achievements – he is a Fellow of both ICE and the Royal Academy of Engineering.


Admission is free and all are welcome. However, those wishing to attend are asked to register their interest. Contact Nicola Kavanagh at: O'RiordanCivilEngineers Ireland,Institution of Civil Engineers,Ireland,United Kingdom
At an Engineers Ireland breakfast event to be held on Thursday, February 18, at 22 Clyde Road, among the many issues that ICE president Sir John Armitt will cover in his address - ‘Civil engineers: Shaping ourselves and our world’ - he will point out that engineers' 'ability to communicate is...