ICE president Sir John Armitt asks if we are generating and sharing the knowledge that this generation needs to tackle the problems it faces?

Author: Sir John Armitt, 151st president of the Institution of Civil Engineers

The ICE’s charter tells us that its task is to “foster and promote the art and science of civil engineering”. Are we generating and sharing the knowledge that this generation needs to tackle the problems it faces? Are we helping people develop into professionals who ask the right ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions? Are we asking how civil engineering relates to other technologies?

It is often said that the past can be a guide to the future. Smeaton, Brunel and Stephenson did not wait for industrialists and politicians to ask them to create new methods of travel and production, or to overcome the physical barriers of rivers, mountains and sea. They invented. They innovated. They took their ideas and persuaded investors and politicians of what could be possible, and how lives could be transformed.

You could say that today’s equivalent pioneers are Tim Berners Lee, Steve Jobs, the bio-medics and synthetic biologists, and the Queen Elizabeth prize winners. However, those 19th century pioneers did get together, organise and form clubs, recognising that collaboration and exchange of ideas can do something that markets and individuals cannot.

The ICE was one of those early clubs, founded and developed in the 19th century. It was initially an extension of the coffee shops. A way for like minded individuals to swap experiences and ideas, to challenge and argue with one another, whilst recognising they were also in competition.

We are often at our best in a crisis, when we are threatened or when we are faced with an immovable deadline. When London was awarded the 2012 Olympics, there was much celebration in Trafalgar Square, but much gnashing of teeth in the Treasury. France had been expected to win. We had a low estimate of the cost and now we would have to estimate the real cost and deliver. Yet, it resulted in a rare instance of cross party support. As a nation we delivered what has since been recognised as the best Olympic Games ever.

While I haven’t had the chance to visit the Aviva stadium during this trip, I know that lessons learnt from the Olympics informed the design and build of this new magnificent stadium, to deliver a fantastic legacy for Dublin and Ireland. I have even witnessed first-hand during my career, the insatiable Irish willingness and determination to deliver.

‘Civil engineering is the fundamental enabler of civilised life today’

ICE president, Sir John Armitt with Engineers Ireland’s director general, Caroline Spillane

ICE president, Sir John Armitt with Engineers Ireland’s director general, Caroline Spillane

Civil engineering is the fundamental enabler of civilised life today and supporter of growing populations. In societies around the world which lack basic infrastructure, modern communication systems are raising awareness of what the best in living standards can be. They are already driving massive demand for fundamental infrastructure in the future. But it will not be easy to deliver. There will be conflicting demands, insufficient funds, inconsistency of political policy, shortage of skills and ineffective delivery.

So what is the role of our organisations in helping society to meet these challenges? ICE is not an inanimate lump of well-crafted stone back in London. It is simply its members, both across the UK and across the world. Its future role is dependent on your – our – shared vision; our ambition; and our self-confidence. We must be relevant. We must be valued by our members and by society. But that value will be perceived differently according to different communities’ demands and expectations.

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 popular and political support. Without which major projects cannot proceed. ICE can – and does – play an important role in explaining the benefits of investing in our nation’s infrastructure, both to government and the wider public, and in a way that doesn’t rely upon technical and complicated language.

We have already made significant strides in this area with initiatives such as our ‘This is Civil Engineering’ PR campaign. Our team in Northern Ireland have led the way with this campaign, showcasing projects such as the record-breaking 100ft footbridge across Belfast’s Clarendon Dock, built entirely from Meccano by engineering students from Queen’s University. I know that there is an appetite to extend this campaign across the border and support Engineers Ireland in raising public awareness of the fantastic infrastructure projects that are taking place here, and showcasing Irish civil engineering in action.

The challenge for us now is to continue keeping our views, and the related solutions, alive and in the public eye all year round. Both the ICE and Engineers Ireland are currently working with politicians and political parties to get our ideas into their manifestos ahead of the 2016 elections. The extensive coverage of our last State of the Nation report and our Manifesto for Infrastructure has helped to raise the profile of the ICE. Engineers Ireland’s State of the Nation Infrastructure Report, which is now in its 6th edition, has likewise been welcomed as a helpful contribution to the debate here.

On a personal level, I have recently taken up a new role as a Commissioner for a newly established National Infrastructure Commission that will provide independent, expert advice to our government. As well as addressing the Commission’s specific priority areas – most recently on London transport, northern connectivity and energy – it will be my role to lead the assessment of the UK’s long-term infrastructure requirements.

Delivery of a ‘National Needs Assessment’

ICE, working in partnership with a coalition of business, industry, environment and academic groups, will support me by delivering a ‘National Needs Assessment’ – an independent, evidence-based review of the UK’s infrastructure needs up to 2050. It is my hope that the Commission can build consensus on the infrastructure Britain needs to support its long term well-being. But if nothing else, I hope ICE’s work with the Commission demonstrates that members of professional institutions such as ours – particularly when working with other bodies – can be a powerful voice for infrastructure. We can help inform these complex choices about infrastructure so that successive governments can come to better decisions that benefit everyone in society.

 ICE president, Sir John Armitt answering questions from the media

ICE president, Sir John Armitt answering questions from the media

I know from speaking with engineers during my visit that this country is not exempt from the issues and challenges that come with developing infrastructure. The risk of skills shortages and lack of much needed investment in projects such as the Luas light rail cross city project that I visited and water, waste water and flood protection schemes is putting huge pressure on Ireland’s existing infrastructure networks and systems. We also need to find a way to cope with the huge challenges that lie ahead, such as climate change, population growth and ensuring our infrastructure networks are resilient.

These challenges are perhaps even more acute in Ireland, as a proportion of GDP spending on infrastructure is one of the lowest in the EU and the fall in infrastructure investment since 2008 is the sharpest here across all member states. At the same time, your population is growing at the fastest rate in the EU. Engineers Ireland is of course contributing their professional views in these discussions and offering solutions. But how else can we help shape the future of our infrastructure and our profession?

It is one of my priorities as president to open ICE’s doors to a broader membership in order to provide for expert views on a range of infrastructure challenges, such as those I have previously mentioned. I would argue we should be prepared to do this in a concerted, planned and continuous programme, year in year out. At the heart of ICE’s mission is to qualify and support civil engineers. I know just how valuable membership of the institution is and how much it means to engineers. But there are many other professionals who spend their whole careers contributing to the creation of infrastructure – who may never seek to qualify as engineers – but who nevertheless would value and benefit from a closer relationship with the institution.

This, of course, would be of mutual benefit both for the institution and its members as it will enable us to widen our access to industry knowledge, facilitate greater cross discipline collaboration and extend our members’ professional network. As a result, I believe we will become more relevant to society and increase our influence. We must not step away from this responsibility because it is too hard or too controversial. If we do, we risk being marginalised by economists, financiers, planners and think tanks. We will only then be asked to do the technical calculations, whilst others are succeeding in being relevant.

At the same time we must be open to engineers, especially in other countries, who do not necessarily adopt our professional qualifications and with whom we do not have mutual recognition. We must learn from engineers across the world, be inspired by them and incorporate their ideas into our work. We cannot influence or learn by remaining aloof and separate.

‘The civil engineering profession must get better at fostering greater innovation in our industry’

During my time as president of the ICE, I have also argued that the civil engineering profession must get better at fostering greater innovation in our industry. Today the new technology headlines tend to be grabbed in healthcare, in biomedical and bioengineering, telecommunications and digital, and in materials technology. When it comes to the building and civil engineering sectors, big changes are less obvious.

As I look back over my career, the biggest changes have been in the impact of environmental considerations at the design stage and during construction; the impact on habitats, biodiversity, pollution control, waste management and the use of recycled materials. However, I firmly believe that our profession needs to find ways of using technology in order to reduce costs, improve utility efficiency and increase life cycles.

It is interesting to see that the next generation of cars could be Apple products rather than Ford, and Toshiba and Honda are collaborating on smart housing. If we in the traditional professions and companies in the construction sector do not research, innovate or embrace new ideas coming from other technologies, we will get left behind. We may find our lunch has been eaten by others such as Samsung or Siemens.

All engineering is about optimism and discovery. We live in a world brimming with new ideas in other sectors. Why not make ours every bit as vital. As designers and contractors, we should always be encouraging new ideas and pushing our clients to work with us and think afresh. We don’t have the public as direct clients and customers. We don’t need to keep selling products. Yet, we all tend to be risk averse in our thinking. So we must push one another. We must become more tolerant of risk taking.

Let me give you just two examples from the Olympic Park.

On the velodrome, the architect and contractor worked together from the start. As a result, they changed a steel beamed roof to a cable net roof, saving weight and cost right through to the foundations. This collaboration also created a naturally lit and ventilated building.

As the client, we pushed for the use of recycled aggregates. Engineers modified concrete designs so that as well as using aggregate for the foundations, they were also used in fair faced concrete. In both examples these changes flowed simply from engineers working together and asking ‘why not’.

To do this we need a vibrant profession, which provides a visible opportunity for young people. ICE has an essentially static number of active members and a clear failure to develop technician membership over the last decade. To address this latter issue, we have combined our efforts with the Institution of Engineering Technology and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers to promote technician status and registration. The engineering profession in Ireland is facing similar challenges and Engineers Ireland is doing all that it can to provide appropriate accreditation for technicians here in Ireland.

However, all our combined efforts will only work if as colleagues and employers we actively think about how we can use the skills of technicians, give them proper recognition, career paths and reward them. We must play an active part in promoting the vocational, work and study routes to a career. University is not the only route to a successful well paid future.

My own background was one year on site and three years at college to obtain exemption from the Institution’s own entry exams. Whilst I could not be let loose on designing the National Conference Centre, I have been able to enjoy a fulfilling career.

Engineers Ireland is leading the way on this issue with your recent STEPS initiative, where volunteers visited schools and held special events to promote engineering and encouraged private companies to hold open days for a variety of engineering careers. This work is highly commendable and achieved great success, as I understand you reached out to in excess of 30,000 students. As an industry we need skills at every level to reflect the diversity of our society. As individuals, we have a vital role to play in encouraging and influencing the training of a diverse, skilled work force through the organisations we work with.

So if I can leave you with one lasting thought, it would be that ICE and Engineers Ireland cannot influence or learn unless we as professional bodies – and as members – are open-mind. Open minded to every aspect of infrastructure, not just the pure engineering but the social, economic and environmental aspects too.

We must be open to a broader membership and open to collaborating with like-minded organisations. We must use every opportunity to inspire young people to join – what for me and I am sure for you – is one of the most enjoyable and satisfying ways of benefiting mankind.

In doing so, we will end up shaping ourselves as better engineers and ultimately help to shape a better world.

aaajohnSir 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.

This article is an abridged version of Sir JohnArmitt’s ICE Presidential Address, which took place in 22 Clyde Road on February 18, 2016. O'RiordanCivilconstruction,Engineers Ireland,infrastructure,United Kingdom
Author: Sir John Armitt, 151st president of the Institution of Civil Engineers The ICE's charter tells us that its task is to “foster and promote the art and science of civil engineering”. Are we generating and sharing the knowledge that this generation needs to tackle the problems it faces? Are...