17th January 2019

2019 Rising to the challenge – the importance of embracing the ‘art’ of engineering

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), founded in 1818 is one of the world’s most respected professional engineering institutions. Since its beginnings it has become home to many of history’s great engineers and 200 years later has over 92,000 members around the world.

To commemorate its 200th anniversary last year, the ICE published an official bicentenary book called ‘Shaping the World.’ As one of the limited number of engineers proudly profiled in the book, this anniversary and the start of 2019, provides an opportune moment to reflect on our profession and the challenges it faces now and in the coming years.

During the launch of the book, ICE Director of Engineering Knowledge, Nathan Baker emphasised the critical role engineers have in the evolution of society and cities in particular. He stated that engineering is not about objects in and of themselves, but the role they play in the advancement of society and the protection of the natural environment. There was also opportunity for those attending to debate our professions’ view of itself, how we improve learning and development of our next generation of talent and how we embrace change, particularly in the form of emerging technology.

The ensuing discussions revealed a deep-rooted paradox about the heart of our engineering psyche. Whilst excellence in maths, efficiency in systems and effectiveness of techniques help us as engineers solve many of the problems that are thrown at us, moving from one technological era to the next brings with it the need for risk engagement, rather than risk aversion. One of our core strengths is to define a paradigm, resolve the associated problems, codify a solution and refine this process over time. We can get trapped by a paradigm however, and this can lead us to apply our intellectual capital to an ever diminishing envelope of independent thought and innovation. Designing and constructing a highway requires a high degree of learning, training and experience, but who says we need a highway in the first place?

This leaves us exposed to focusing our energy on dealing with known issues, but it limits our ability to identify and pursue new challenges. We  need to change this and we need to invest and speculate in more of the unknown, particularly given the emergence and inevitable expansion of artificial intelligence.

The ICE charter states that the institution exists to ‘foster and promote the art and science of civil engineering.’ With this mind, we are now facing a rate of change that means we must embrace the ‘art’ of engineering and attempt to disrupt our outlook by identifying, defining and recalculating the new objects and physical interventions coming generations and the natural environment needs.

This involves rediscovering the boldness that canal and railway engineers, motorway and air travel engineers or high rise engineers have shown when confronted with new technology. This means we need to be highly socially aware and emotionally intelligent. We need to recognise that decisions occur in complex political environments where multiple stakeholders, holding different values and conflicting goals, interact and make decisions together. We know that talent diversity and process disruption are the best way to enable us to do this and success needs to be measured not by traditional methods but by how a citizen experiences a place.

There is a huge amount to be proud of as an engineer. We have achieved a lot but there is more to do than ever before as our cities become more sophisticated, population density increases and we gain an understanding of what the potential and impact of rapidly evolving technology is. Over the last 200 years we have risen to these challenges before and we need to make certain that we select the right balance of our professions characteristics to enable us to take the required risks that will unlock the next chapter in our Institution’s impressive story.

2019 Rising to the challenge – the importance of embracing the ‘art’ of engineering