The Institution of Structural Engineers' Joe Kindregan says today's engineers need a more holistic approach to meet the challenges of climate change, globalisation and urbanisation, and the leadership expectations of tomorrow’s engineers will be significant and there will be less emphasis on technical skills and a stronger focus on soft skills

The Institution of Structural Engineers a global organisation of 27,000 members has a new 2019 president, writes PJ Rudden. He is Joe Kindregan an Irish practising consulting engineer who was previously head of civil and structural engineering at Dublin Institute of Technology now known as TU Dublin our newest university.

His inaugural address, ‘Engineering contributions to humanity through the ages and challenges for 2050’, is a very realistic and forward thinking document. We know structural engineers have very high technical skills and Kindregan was at the top of his UCD civil engineering class, graduating in 1976 and winning the coveted NUI Pierce Malone Scolarship in UCD.

Based on his varied roles in consulting nationally and internationally and 30 years (10 lecturing and 20 as head of school) in DIT his message now to his global structural membership is strikingly different and especially thought provoking.

ICE president Joe Kindregan.

He says that the world is changing, engineers now need a more holistic skilled approach to meet the challenges of climate change, globalisation and urbanisation as there will be greater leadership expectations of tomorrow’s engineers. That means less emphasis on the technical skills and greater attention on the soft skills like communications and sustainability.

The following is a summary of Joe Kindregan’s inaugural address, which too place recently in London:

Impact of engineers on society

All engineering disciplines have an influence on members of society, whether it be in the buildings we use, transportation systems, water supply, wastewater and waste management systems, electrical and electronic devices in everyday use, biomedical engineering and influences on the many facets of business and commerce. Engineering influence is all around us in all of our lives.

All of these developments are the result of someone’s creativity and imagination. We must mirror this creativity with openness as we consider the challenges facing engineers of the future.

The history of civil engineering is the history of civilisation. At the start of the third millennium we engineers continue to write that history.

As structural engineers, we might cite the Roman aqueducts, better housing, the discovery of concrete and steel, multistorey buildings like the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, inspiring bridges such as the Millau viaduct in France or the Tamina canyon crossing in Switzerland as contributing to the welfare of humanity.

In the context of engineering’s enormous contribution to society, we need to also recognise the cotton mills of the Industrial Revolution, the invention of the steam engine to herald the advent of mass travel, healthcare inventions such as life-support machines and genetic engineering.

As structural engineers, we have made a particular and substantial input to the built environment and our influence can be seen all through our physical environment. As 2017 IStructE president Ian Firth suggested in his inaugural address ‘In the beginning was the world – world without structures before mankind learned how to build’.

The future of the engineering profession

This future was debated by the IStructE Council in 2018. Jo Da Silva in her gold medal address to the institution said: “This generation of structural engineers is faced with unprecedented challenges, both technical and societal. In order to adapt to a post-climate change environment, our traditional approach to design must be radically different.”

The institution council considered a number of emerging trends:
• An increasing need for integration and collaboration with the other built environment professions;
• The increasing impact of data as a tool for design and construction;
• More research in development of new materials;
• Increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) bringing both challenge and threat;
• A need, presented by the ‘internet of things’ to learn how to apply smart analytics to generate future insights.

Subsequent workshops identified three issues – designing with data, construction methods and city resilience – as likely to have a significant impact on the profession.

With a future emphasis on a digital environment, it is likely that our profession will have a greater input into ‘concepts’ and ‘validation’ with much of the technical design confined to automation.

Cities of the future

By 2050 the world population will be of the order of 9.8 billion – up from today’s population of 7.8 billion. More than 50 per cent of this increase will be in Africa with a further third of the increase occurring in Asia and the remainder in the rest of the world.

Therefore 90 per cent of the population growth will be in Asia and Africa. Some 65 to 70 per cent will be living in urban areas. We therefore need to ensure that our future cities work well for us. This creates an opportunity for structural engineers to think far more broadly and to encourage their collaboration with other built environment professionals.

By 2050, the Earth will need as much as 70 per cent more food to sustain its population and it is estimated that as many as four billion people will live in regions where water shortages will be an ever-present problem. The ‘middle class’ is expected to increase from its current size of 3.2 billion to more than five billion by 2050.

By any measure, these statistics are staggering, the impact potentially overwhelming and the opportunity for structural engineers to help meet the needs of this transformation need to be seized.

The effects of climate change, globalisation and rising expectations will all require engineering solutions – from a global built environment industry that has been traditionally slow to change and set against a background of increasing skill shortages.

Resilience and sustainable development

The highest risk in terms of future impact will be the failure to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. Engineers need to think about the social impacts of our projects not just the physical impacts. The focus will be on resilience and social outputs and in particular the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The development of our cities will be critical to sustaining the world’s population and providing inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable living. The single highest risk in terms of likelihood will be large-scale involuntary migration from rising sea levels.

The development of the cities of the future will be critical to sustaining the world’s growing population. Responsibility for this will require a multidisciplinary approach. The future engineering of cities will demand resilient design to likely inward migration resulting from various climate change impacts.

In addition to increased urbanisation, we can expect further increases in life expectancy and growth in population which will exacerbate the already huge demands for energy, food, land, waste management, public healthcare and telecommunications as part of the newly needed infrastructure.

Efficiency of food production is going to be critical to sustaining the future population. The growth of vertical farming and indoor farming in urban areas – providing carbon sinks and help in reduction of food miles – will be a feature of future urban landscapes.

Education for the future

Our current engineering education system while slowly changing, is no longer fit for purpose. The level of complexity requires more than a technical solution. We need to therefore consider a whole different education paradigm to address these major concerns. The education of structural engineers for the future may have to involve less technical depth, instead training people to have a complete perspective of problems most of which are non-technical.

Today young people are far more aware of the great challenges we face as a society – such as sustainability, economics and political constraints – than of many of the complex technical issues. We must change that in imaginative ways such as the role we play in making things happen in society at large. Our industry continues to see engineering as primarily providing technical and scientific solutions rather than contributing to the wider needs of humanity.

Students hoping to make a positive difference to the lives of people do not always see the solutions being related to the study of engineering. Business, law and medicine are seen as more relevant to school leavers. In addition, the issues of poor programme retention in some colleges, loss of graduates to other professions, lack of female participation, limited ethnic diversity and inclusion should all be major concerns to the profession.

Our current engineering education system is not preparing students for the demands of the 21st century. These can be summarised as follows:-
• Too much analysis and calculus;
• Programmes with a huge emphasis on teaching solutions to particular problems;
• Limited emphasis on teamwork and leadership;
• Poor understanding by students on significance of engineering to society;
• Limited emphasis on developing student interpersonal skills;
• Limited emphasis on creativity both at professional and technical level.

Focusing on creativity and innovation

Engineering education needs to redefine the role of engineers as problem identifiers by learning to better understand the needs of the communities in which we serve rather than present ‘engineering solutions’ to perceived technical problems.

Teamwork and creativity must continue to be developed and encouraged. Issues such as sustainability, climate change, health, environmental quality, urbanisation and transportation require more than technology and science to effect solutions and these have to be a significant input to any future education.

We need to expand our focus on the humanities and social sciences. This will lay the foundation for the soft skills such as general problem solving, leadership, entrepreneurship, innovation and communication – all attributes that promote our humanitarian skills. We need to create ‘global engineers’ with an ability to understand complex economic, political and global problems.

We need our future engineers to integrate service learning, civic engagement and outreach programmes and to have adequate skills to secure their future in the digital economy. A culture of lifelong learning needs to be better encouraged with mandatory CPD which is now becoming mainstream in most professional institutions.

Our developing digital transformation activity lends itself to the sharing of information across our vast international network of members and followers.

We have been challenged by the Grenfell Tower disaster and the subsequent review of building regulations and fire safety by Dame Judith Hackitt as well as incidents and near misses elsewhere. Employers need to maintain investment in the employees’ professional development despite many competing pressures and where employee mobility will be the norm.

Concluding remarks

The future of structural engineering depends on attracting and retaining our best graduates and members. Structural engineering offers us an opportunity to encourage a more diverse and inclusive cohort of school leavers into the profession where they can be challenged, acquire knowledge and help shape the world.

A Denver based structural engineer is quoted as saying:

‘Engineers are the single most indispensable group needed for developing and maintaining any country’s infrastructure and standard of living. Yet they are rarely thought of as leaders of society. Instead of being perceived as those who run things, they are seen as those who make things run.’

I look forward to meeting many of our members during the year and engaging in discussions on the many challenges we face in the coming years.

Author: This is a summation by PJ Rudden, RPS Group, of the inaugural addresss of ICE president Joe Kindregan BE CEng FIStructE MIEI PGDipComp PGDipPM O'RiordanCivilDIT,ICE UK,structures and construction
The Institution of Structural Engineers a global organisation of 27,000 members has a new 2019 president, writes PJ Rudden. He is Joe Kindregan an Irish practising consulting engineer who was previously head of civil and structural engineering at Dublin Institute of Technology now known as TU Dublin our newest...