ICE President Prof David Balmforth asks if we have built new infrastructure before ensuring we can afford to maintain the infrastructure we already have. Have we prioritised efficiency over resilience to unforeseen events?


Author: Prof David Balmforth, BSc PhD CEng FICE FCIWEM, 150th president of the Institution of Civil Engineers

Is civil engineering fit for the future? When I started to think about this, I thought back to when Thomas Telford, the first president of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), and his colleagues met to form a learned society for civil engineers – in 1818.

How did they see their future and how well prepared were they for the challenges that lay ahead? They lived in a Britain that was at the threshold of the industrial revolution, a revolution that would ultimately shape the future of the world. Those early engineers came from all walks of life and, unlike today, many had no training or qualifications. Yet they laid the foundations of the roads, the railways and the water-supply systems on which modern society now depends.

Their ingenuity and tenacity has been replicated in all subsequent generations, taking us from canals to motorways, inclined planes to high-speed rail, cottages to high-rise buildings and midden heaps to modern sanitation.

The profession, and the work that it delivers today, would have been beyond the imagination of those early engineers; a railway beneath the English Channel, a ship canal joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and a bridge spanning the Severn Estuary. How could they foresee the current pace of change, the globalisation of our business and the demands of a society fuelled by the instant world of computing and the internet?

As well as wrestling with the embryonic principles of construction, they had to convince wary investors, uninterested politicians and a sceptical public that often treated their ideas as absurd. They understood the importance of sharing ideas, providing a platform for change and ensuring that their workforce was fit for the job. But they also had the vision to look forward, to see their role in addressing the difficulties that society faced in achieving progress whilst avoiding disaster. Telford and his colleagues had the vision to step beyond their threshold. We need that vision again today.

The infrastructure that supports modern city-living has evolved over many generations into a highly sophisticated system. In London alone, infrastructure provides 368GWh of energy each day to homes and businesses. London Underground conveys 3.5 million passengers, almost as much as the whole of the UK’s rail network added together. Its buses transport double that number. More than 2,000 million litres of water are consumed and a similar amount of sewage is collected and treated. The Thames barrier and associated coastal and river defence works protects 1.5 million people from flooding. This infrastructure supports an economy that delivers more than 20% of the UK’s GDP.

Similarly impressive statistics can be set out for all the world’s major cities. Yet, in recent years, we have not been short of examples that demonstrate the fragility of those cities and the infrastructure that supports them. Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that even in a city such as New Orleans, in one of the most advanced nations on earth, it took only eight hours for society to collapse. An earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2011 reduced the city centre to ruin. The UK floods of 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2013-’14 have also aptly demonstrated the vulnerability of society to the extremes of nature.

In our quest for economic development, have we lost sight of the central role that infrastructure plays in securing and sustaining society? Have we built new infrastructure before ensuring we can maintain the infrastructure we already have? Have we prioritised efficiency over resilience to unforeseen events? And have we truly set our sights on the future demands that the world will ask of us and of the infrastructure that we provide?

Monumental global demands

Climate change means that by 2100, sea levels will have risen by up to one metre around the world. In the Bay of Bengal alone, a sea level rise of just 400mm would put 11% of Bangladesh’s land area under water, creating seven to ten million climate refugees.

Population growth will see the world’s population grow to 11 billion by 2100. This will mainly be in the large cities of the world and mostly in poorer communities. Even in the developed world, cities will struggle to cope with population growth, leading to the rapid expansion of slum communities, inadequately served with water, energy and sanitation.

Resource depletion will mean that without a radical change in direction, some key materials will no longer be generally available and water resources may be inadequate to support global food production. Economic instability and inadequate infrastructure – especially housing, water, sanitation and transport – will stress some communities beyond the point at which they are viable, leading to economic and social collapse. Indeed, civil unrest and damage resulting from population migration and natural disasters could have more of an impact on global well-being than wars or terrorism.

The global mega-trends are of such a scale that they stretch our ability to comprehend them. They test our capacity to imagine a future where prosperity and sustainability can work in harmony. Yet imagine that future we must.

Governments, individually and collectively, have been slow to react, often because their planning horizons are short, and public interest even shorter. But civil engineers do not work to short timeframes. We build infrastructure today to last for many generations. We stand on a new threshold for change, in the same way that our forebears stood nearly 200 years ago. Can we rise to the challenge in the same way that our predecessors did? Can we shape a world fit for future generations?

We might want to give more thought to what sort of world we wish to see in the future. We might imagine a future where cities adequately house their population, foster economic activity, create a sensory space in which to live and work, work in harmony with nature, are resilient to natural and man-made disasters and foster social justice. So how might we achieve this?

Building information modelling already offers a radical new platform for delivering infrastructure. Smart sensors, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things could provide flexible infrastructure that can adapt in real time to its users’ needs, and detect and repair its own defects. But technical innovations alone will not deliver the infrastructure that the world needs. We need a much more radical approach, looking afresh at the issues of resilience, adaptability and availability.

• Resilience
Much of our future infrastructure will not be able to cope with the demands of population growth and climate change. Can we embrace radical concepts such as floating cities to deal with sea-level rise, and vertical rain gardens to manage water resources and urban ecology? As our State of the Nation report argues, it is probably unrealistic to expect future infrastructure to function in extreme conditions. So how do we plan for infrastructure failure? How do we avoid the failure in one area of infrastructure cascading into other areas? Rather than building ever-more-complex and inter-dependent systems, might it not be prudent to rely more on local freestanding systems?

• Adaptability
We cannot be certain about the future. Our infrastructure will have to adapt in real time as future pressures become evident. It will have to adapt as the economy, the climate and communities adapt. Its development will have to accommodate much shorter timescales than is currently the case, to benefit from innovation, as and when it arises. It will need to better accommodate environmental pressures.

• Availability
Lack of appropriate infrastructure is one of the most divisive factors of modern society. It divides rich from poor. It sets apart the developing world from the developed. When we look at recent flooding events, it is the poorer communities, often in our ageing city centres, who suffer most and who have the fewest resources to help them recover. The better off and the better educated are often more adept at getting their voice heard.

So how might today’s civil engineers rise to the global challenges we face? I am pretty certain that this will not be through ‘business as usual’. Nor will it be by going it alone. So I would like to suggest three areas where we might do things differently.

Plan for future cities and global infrastructure

Firstly, as a profession, we might want to ask – to what extent could we become truly international, with a vision that our principles and practices are shared by civil engineers around the world?

Could we become the catalyst for change by working with other professions to set out a plan for future cities and global infrastructure? How might we achieve a shared view, and a shared plan? Could we work with other stakeholders and the public in a much more integrated way to better understand the importance of cultural difference? This means working in partnership with communities, using their languages, values, timescales and priorities. This is not sufficiently embedded in our way of doing business just yet, but it will be important for the future, both in the developing and developed world.

Secondly, might we focus more on the benefits our projects bring, and not simply on the projects themselves? In the past, we have rightly been criticised for a failure to deliver projects on time and budget. But has this focus on delivering project outputs masked our view of the benefits such projects bring? Civil engineering projects by their very nature are expensive, disruptive and consume large quantities of energy and resources. They are not automatically welcomed by society.

When I meet people who have suffered from flooding, the misery they face is all too clear. They are afraid to go on holiday in case it rains while they are away. If it rains at night they have to get out of bed to see if their home has flooded. When we deliver flood-alleviation schemes, we do not simply cross off the number of properties on a flooding register – we transform peoples’ lives. If we set out more clearly the long-term benefits that civil engineering projects bring, then society might more easily recognise their value. Might this then help us to regain the moral high ground in the infrastructure debate?

Thirdly, I would like to see a drive to unblock the barriers to innovation. Innovation, by definition, is a way of doing things differently, which means it encapsulates uncertainty and the chance of failure. A culture that welcomes new ideas, accommodates failure and celebrates success, will foster innovation. Might we not create contractual arrangements that incentivise innovation, where liability is shared equitably with those whom will benefit from the innovation, and where this is reflected in our means of insurance? I will be asking my apprentices to work on this.

Finally, we cannot expect to bring this change about unless ICE also changes. How do we help it to be more agile and adaptable in the way that it supports the work of practicing civil engineers, to make it relevant, enabling and diverse?

• Relevant: to enable knowledge sharing and access to experts in real time from the workplace, producing standards and codes of practice that are flexible rather than restrictive, and influencing the world’s decision makers through timely, informed and independent advice.

• Enabling: to develop a workforce that is more flexible, adaptable and skilled. Developing qualifications that are mutually recognised – valuing skills developed in the workplace as much as academic learning, and recognising life-long learning.

• Diverse: benefiting from the experience that comes from diverse groups with a mix of age, gender, ethnicity and experience. Do we really understand what it takes to foster diverse organisations – where diversity is welcomed rather than merely tolerated? I generally find that diverse teams are more productive, innovative and happier.

Presidential plans

We will set out a new framework for qualification and membership that recognises the growing breadth of civil engineering and the importance of life-long learning. As part of our ‘Shaping the World’ initiative, we will organise a global conference targeted at leaders of world cities that face the most serious challenges. We will use this to help shape their future plans, distil the key lessons from global research and influence the political landscape internationally.

In 2015, we will work more actively with our fellow engineering professions – and the ‘Tomorrow’s Engineers’ programme in particular – to deliver a step change to the way we inspire young people. We will also launch our new website to improve navigation and overall user experience – and give better connectivity to our training programmes and knowledge services. In 2016, I hope we will launch an international initiative aimed at breaking the barriers to providing water and sanitation in the developing world.

That brings me back to the start: are the challenges we face today that different from those Telford faced when he set out on a journey that transformed society? Is our future any less certain than theirs? Is our threshold of change any more difficult? Are our opportunities any less? I suspect not. Over the generations, we have shaped a remarkable profession. It has proven, time and again, able to respond to society’s demands.

We will prove ourselves, and our profession, fit for the future. Because we all know what we have to do, we have the skills and capability to do it and, most of all, it is our job to make a difference.

ICE President David Balmforth is executive technical director with international consultants MWH, specialising in urban flood control, pollution management and climate change adaptation in the wastewater sector. He is an advisor to the Singapore Government on flooding strategy. Balmforth was elected to ICE’s Council in 2007 and to the Executive Board in 2008. As vice president, he held both the International and Learned Society portfolios. He became senior vice president in November 2013 and president in November 2014.

This article is an abridged version of David Balmforth’s ICE Presidential Address, which took place in 22 Clyde Road on 27 February, 2015. O'RiordanCivilconstruction,infrastructure,Institution of Civil Engineers,United Kingdom
  Author: Prof David Balmforth, BSc PhD CEng FICE FCIWEM, 150th president of the Institution of Civil Engineers Is civil engineering fit for the future? When I started to think about this, I thought back to when Thomas Telford, the first president of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), and his...