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Brunel International Lecture Series: Europe, March 2023

The need to embrace whole-systems thinking, to engage with communities and to collaborate with other disciplines to boost climate change resilience were some of the key issues addressed by the European leg of the 14th Brunel Lecture Series.

The 14th Brunel International Lecture Series, produced by the ICE and the International Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure (ICSI), shines a spotlight on equitable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure challenges around the world and how the engineering community can help to address them.

Despite variations across the huge European landmass, the region shares several challenges – not least the interdependencies of critical infrastructure, as recognised by the EU in its Critical Entities Resilience Directive, published in December 2022.

Common issues include striving for sustainability, managing climate change effects and dealing with inflationary pressures and the rising cost of energy, while at the same time ensuring that ageing infrastructure is fit for purpose and meets the needs of people and the planet.

While focusing on common problems, such as flood risk management, there also needs to be an awareness of the social impact of engineering decisions, the need for wide engagement, and recognition that different solutions will be appropriate for different communities and levels of risk.

David Porter, vice president of the ICE and director of engineering at the Department for Infrastructure (Northern Ireland), chaired an excellent discussion between four panellists:

  • Lucie Anderton, head of the sustainability unit and coordinator for the North American region at the International Union of Railways (UIC)
  • Jeanette Muñoz Abela, director of architecture and structural engineering at design studio Bureau 105 and senior lecturer at the University of Malta
  • Stefan Köhler, infrastructure advisor at the UN Office for Project Services, Europe and Central Asia Region
  • Brian McKavanagh, business development director at consultancy Atkins
14th Brunel international series, Europe
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Sustainable Development Goals:

Linking our work back to the UN SDGs is a core part of the ICE’s plan and mission. This article ties in with the following SDGs:

What are the challenges?

Influencing policy

Engineers need to work out how best to support governments in implementing global agendas such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction to ensure that infrastructure is sustainable and resilient.

We are building the future now. Infrastructure has a lifespan of at least 30-60 years, easily taking us to 2050 and beyond.

McKavanagh highlighted the major role that engineers have to play in Ireland’s updated Climate Action Plan, which aims to reduce emissions in six high-impact sectors – electricity, buildings, transport, industry, agriculture and land use. He stressed the importance of the next decade in making these changes.

The procurement process is one way in which the sustainability and whole-life value of a project can be influenced.

There has been a gradual change in attitudes among project sponsors – from transactional, confrontational and risk-averse to an approach that recognises attributes such as sustainability, social values, collaboration, equitable risk-share and digital delivery as essential to successful procurement.

The UK government’s Procurement Policy Note 06/20 sets out that all central government departments and agencies must evaluate social value with a “minimum overall weighting of 10%” for the total procurement.

This is an important step towards monetising the values that projects can create for people and communities and, by extension, our planet.

In discussing the maturity of clients to achieve the above, Köhler cited working with a local-government engineering department in Bangladesh.

Work was carried out to change the way in which the rural infrastructure portfolio was managed, by developing asset management plans and strategies that linked to national strategies and, ultimately, to the SDGs to give broader context.

For example, when designing asset management plans for roads and bridges, the aim was to ensure, among other things, access to schools – linking specifically to SDG4 (Quality education) – and to healthcare, linking to SDG3 (Good health and well-being).

Wind Turbines

The major role that engineers have to play in Ireland’s updated Climate Action Plan was highlighted

Credit: iStock/mammuth

Influencing early-stage decision-making

Muñoz Abela highlighted the challenge engineers may face in transitioning from being problem-solvers to solution-developers. A shift in mindset is needed to ensure that the right strategic decisions are made when designing for the human side of our projects.

Decisions relating to the maintenance of existing assets are crucial to sustainability and resilience, to make the most of ageing infrastructure and to avoid building new simply for the sake of the economy.

Retrofitting will be a huge opportunity to extend the life of assets and to start building circular economy principles into the way assets are managed.

Anderton cited how the life of metro-service rolling stock could be extended by being retrofitted with hydrogen and battery power, allowing it to run as light rail on conventional line.

There is a need to move beyond thinking about the performance of individual assets to considering their impact on the system as a whole.

In this way, infrastructure is not thought of as siloed systems – water, waste, energy and so on – but as a system of systems. This will affect how interventions are prioritised.

Decision-making is also crucial when preparing for and responding to disasters. An initial aspiration to ‘build back better’ following a disaster often becomes ‘build back quickly’, and then just ‘build back’.

It is important to be brave about failure analysis and take time to learn the lessons of why failures happen.

According to Köhler, it is rare that disaster responders are involved in the planning process for cities and areas. Having their input in early-stage planning would help to inform design, and engineers can help to facilitate these conversations.

Very often, development just happens, and the associated risks are not fully understood. Becoming more aware of the risks means starting to think about longer-term strategies for managing them.

One example given was raising the level of a rail signalling box to help protect it from flooding. The analysis for such an action needs to be carried out well in advance of disasters occurring.

Bricks Build Back Better

An initial aspiration to ‘build back better’ following a disaster often becomes ‘build back quickly’, and then just ‘build back’

Credit: iStock/Alessandro2802

Global average warming per decade

Average warming per decade in northern Europe, including the UK

More than 60%
of EU seaports may be under high flood risk by 2100

Sources: Carbon Brief, UN Economic Commission for Europe

How are engineers getting involved now?

Designing and implementing system-level solutions

Köhler talked about the shift he has seen from engineers viewing infrastructure simply as assets to thinking about it in terms of the services it delivers for society and communities.

Anderton shared some examples of what is being achieved in the transport sector around the world, often involving making changes at a system level.

System-wide transport projects in Singapore, for instance, have focused on active travel and how people get to stations. As part of an overall strategy to promote walking and cycling, 200km of sheltered walkways have been installed to better connect public transport hubs.

She also cited a UK project to build a new rail line that involved diverting a river. New meanders and other added features brought a variety of advantages, including increased biodiversity, better landscaping, natural drainage and reduced flood risk to the infrastructure.

There is a growing understanding of the value and benefits that are received from ecosystems – for example, bees, as pollinators, are worth billions of pounds to the food industry.

It is now possible to look at our habitats and understand, and often monetise, the services that they bring. This helps with optimising benefits from green infrastructure, such as knowing what kind of planting is best for stabilising embankments and reducing run-off of surface water.

What changes are needed?

Capacity building for engineers

In building capacity for engineers, there also needs to be a change in how engineers think.

Köhler quoted the words of one of his university lecturers – that engineers need to be philosophers. They should understand more about the social impacts of what they do so they can consider not merely the assets produced but also their outcomes for society.

Sir John Armitt, when he was ICE President 2015-16, was asked, “How can you be a better civil engineer?” His answer was “to spend less time with civil engineers”.

There is great benefit in widening one’s perspective and engaging with other professionals – engineers do not have all the answers and the best solutions are found in collective efforts.

Reference was made to the views of Expedition Engineering’s Chris Wise, who argues strongly in favour of 'T-shaped designers' to encircle problems. These are people who have a depth of understanding of their own discipline but also a breadth of skills and an understanding of how they can benefit from the expertise of other specialists.

Many of the innovations that will lead us to net-zero carbon will push engineers to the limits of their training and knowledge in dealing with new and evolving technologies such as floating offshore wind, energy-system upgrades and hydrogen distribution.

Malta’s multidisciplinary approach

Engineer and university lecturer Jeanette Muñoz Abela brought an illuminating perspective to the discussion about training. She referred to former US President Barack Obama’s remarks at the 2014 UN Climate Summit that “we are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it”.

At the University of Malta, Muñoz Abela explained, there is essentially one course for all of the construction industry. Architects, engineers and urban planners sit the same course but with different electives in the areas in which they wish to specialise.

The entire cohort comes together to develop masterplan solutions for development of an area in a fictitious project that integrates green and blue infrastructure.

Such a multidisciplinary approach helps to facilitate an understanding of other people’s behaviours and shows how professions can work together to embed sustainability into projects.

The approach is key to understanding how each of the 17 SDGs, and their indicators, can be achieved in practice. Some of the results from these projects have been presented to local government.

Engaging with communities

On the one hand, civil engineers need to find a stronger voice within projects; on the other, a large part of designing for people involves listening. ‘Storytelling’ is talked about a lot, but there needs to be a phase before that called ‘story-listening’.

It's about designing with society and communities, not for them. Bringing people on board from the beginning of a project also makes them feel part of it and gives them a sense of ownership.

Fundamentally, it is important to remember that the word ‘civil’ in civil engineers means relating to ordinary citizens and their concerns. Somewhere along the line, the engineer and the community have become detached, and there is a need to rethink how projects are delivered to bring them back together again.

  • Sarah Hall, ICE climate knowledge manager

About the series

The Brunel opening lecture introduced some of the themes that the series will tackle on its worldwide journey. Comprising a mix of physical and virtual gatherings, the series will comprise nine lectures in total, culminating in a Hong Kong event in July 2024. As the series progresses, it will explore the regional and global challenges and opportunities posed by our changing climate for the engineering community.

  • Opening lecture: 29 September 2022
  • Africa lecture: 28 November 2022
  • South-East Asia lecture: 5 July 2023
  • Americas lecture: 19 September 2023
  • Middle East and North Africa lecture: 13 November 2023
  • Australasia lecture: February 2024
  • South Asia lecture: May 2024
  • Closing lecture in East Asia (Hong Kong): July 2024

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