21st century engineering: Time to get radical

Dr. Ellie Cosgrave, Research Associate at UCL and speaker at ICE's recent debate event, considers the radical engineering approaches we must adopt to tackle the global challenges of the 21st century.

Climate change, rapid urbanisation and other challenges of the 21st century call for a radical rethink of our approaches to engineering.
Climate change, rapid urbanisation and other challenges of the 21st century call for a radical rethink of our approaches to engineering.

When we contemplate the challenges facing our cities over the next 30 years, it's easy to get gloomy. Mass urbanisation, crumbling infrastructure and catastrophic climate change are prospects to which the response "not to worry – more engineering" is not particularly sufficient. More roads, more buildings, more airports, more oil wells; more everything. Intuitively it doesn't seem right, yet it is the direction we are setting for ourselves. In our great hurry to meet today's infrastructure challenges and support 'growth' I worry that we may be digging ourselves deeper than ever into a carbon-fuelled infrastructure system.

So if more of the same is not the solution, what is? And where do we go from here? As part of the Liveable Cities research programme I argue that we need to make space within our engineering community to challenge our approach and assumptions, translate this into practice and take our seat at the political table.

I am therefore delighted at the themes of ICE's thought leadership work on resilience and growth of future cities and welcome critical reflection on a new path for engineering practice. In November I took part in an ICE debate event, which was a wonderful opportunity to explore some of the key engineering challenges of the 21st century – and crucially, to explore together the role of engineers in moulding a sustainable, equitable and just future.

What impact can engineers have on the resilience and growth of future cities? Watch the full debate

During the debate, three calls to action emerged; develop radical new approaches to engineering practice, a unified voice and an ability to influence and participate in policy making. I believe the ICE is in the perfect position to take leadership in these agendas and I am proud to be a part of that process.

Challenge our Approach – Get Radical

The 19th and 20th century models of engineering have served us well. Sewerage, buildings, trains, motorways, aeroplanes, the internet. These have all transformed how we are able to live in cities and have vastly progressed our quality of life.

The problem is that the 21st century brings with it a new set of challenges that were simply not on the table during the 'golden age of engineering'. Globalisation, increased extreme climate events, global warming and the need to move away from fossil fuels are all challenges that will not be met by ploughing forward with existing models of engineering. We need to looks at the root assumptions, challenge them and create a new model of engineering fit for the 21st century.

For me there is a clear choice to make, keep driving forward with infrastructure projects based on old assumptions, or take a risk and reinvent engineering practice for our modern context.

Work together

It is impossible to progress this mission whilst sitting within our own organisations and practices. We need a space for collective agenda setting, reflection and action. Engineers from all disciplines and sectors must come together to bottom-out the fundamental barriers we face. We must develop a dialogue that enables us to move forward as a united community.

Gain a Political Voice

We need to find ways as a community of engineers to collectively challenge our assumptions and reach an audience wider than ourselves. We need to gain some understanding of how political and economic structures influence our effectiveness as engineers and problem solvers, and we need to take our seat at the table. It is for the professional institutions to take a lead on this, working with and through Chief Scientific Advisors and creating new mechanisms for the engineering sector to engage in political processes.

Get Excited: A New Golden Age of Engineering

We stand before an opportunity to create a new golden age of engineering – an age where engineers are able to work effectively across disciplines and challenge old assumptions. An age where we can build an engineering practice that takes account of modern division of labour, gender, racial diversity, disabilities, globalisation and makes use of digital connectivity to help create a society that we all want to be part of. This will take bravery, it will make us uncomfortable and it will cause arguments that I hope will be deeply and passionately fought.

This is our opportunity to change the course of history. Let's not miss it – let's get excited.

About the Author

Ellie Cosgrave is a Research Associate on the EPSRC funded Liveable Cities Programme; an ambitious five-year programme of research to develop realistic and radical engineering solutions for achieving low carbon, resource secure UK cities in a way that maximises wellbeing. Her work explores transformative approaches to policy making and governance of cities.

ICE's Thought Leadership Work

ICE is exploring the complex challenges presented by urbanisation within our new Thought Leadership Programme, and will be publishing a White Paper on Urbanisation in the coming weeks. If you are interested in finding out more about this programme, and opportunities to get involved, please email policy@ice.org.uk.