An ICE-commissioned study into the future of civil engineering has identified that both the infrastructure sector, and the institution, must adapt and change its approach if it is to meet the needs of its membership and of society.
The study identifies the strategic trends and disruptors shaping the sector and the civil engineer skills profile. It recommends that instead of merely focusing on the individual, “ICE must offer something of value to every member of the infrastructure team, not just those it will qualify as civil engineers”.
Questioning the traditional role of the civil engineer
The climate crisis, urbanisation, the pandemic and a demand for inclusivity are all accelerating and putting different pressures on the natural and built environment. In response, taxpayers, infrastructure owners and investors are seeking a wider range of outcomes for their money.
This has led to the traditional role of civil engineers, of building and maintaining structures, being questioned: would their role need to change, and as designers, could this be more about investigating and identifying what infrastructure owners and users actually want and need?
To address these issues, ICE commissioned the Engineering Rebellion study led by Emma-Jane Houghton, commercial director of the UK government’s new hospital programme, to address the question: “Who is the future civil engineer and how does ICE adapt to embrace them?”
Strategic trends and future scenarios
The study has identified six interconnected strategic trends that are interacting and shaping the infrastructure industry. These are: the climate crisis and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); accelerating digital transformation; flatlining productivity; growing complexity; competition for the future workforce and demand for increased diversity; and value replacing volume as the basis for financial reward.
What do these trends mean for the future skills profile of the civil engineer?
In light of these strategic trends, the study identifies seven specific disruptors to the traditional role of the civil engineer. These are:
- Net zero and sustainability benefits will become central to project outcomes.
- Business models will demand greater collaboration to deliver more value through the asset lifecycle.
- Diversity – people will need to come into the industry from a much wider set of routes and backgrounds.
- Digital will create a demand for people with the adaptability needed to understand and work with a wide and rapidly changing set of digital technologies.
- Productivity will need to improve rapidly. Engineers will need to master the skills and behaviour that will allow innovative practices, techniques and materials to be deployed.
- Systems thinking will be needed at the project, network and system-of-systems levels.
- Upskilling will be constant – civil engineers will need to adopt a proactive attitude to lifelong learning.
How should ICE support its members and this need for change?
The study’s main advice to ICE was to “think differently” and that it could benefit from “focusing as much on the infrastructure team as it did on the individual”. By supporting civil engineers to work more effectively in multidisciplinary teams, this will help to deliver more effective outcomes.
ICE should also work with other engineering institutions and non-engineering professions to draw people from more diverse backgrounds into the construction and infrastructure industry.
The institution has an important role in helping the industry to draw on a wider reservoir of talent from different economic sectors, social and cultural backgrounds and age groups, while ensuring that everyone working in infrastructure is competent and has the support they need.
This means a key question for ICE is how it can offer something of value to every member of the infrastructure team, not just those it will qualify as civil engineers.
Lastly, achieving net zero carbon and the wider SDGs is the moral and technical challenge of this generation. ICE needs to think about what that means for the licence to operate it provides to professionals and how it can better support them to take their key sustainable development competencies to higher levels.
Questions for the future: what if....?
In discussing the report’s findings, Houghton sought to plant a final thought that has to be considered: “What if we’ve been asking the wrong questions all along? What if coming up with a single definition of the future engineer in the face of such change is a recipe for inflexibility when what we need is agility? What if society and client needs from infrastructure no longer map to the old professional disciplines? Or if the future is collaboration between people from a more diverse range of backgrounds?”
She concluded: “In that world, perhaps the priority for ICE is to prepare its members to thrive in the infrastructure team of the future and work out what it has to offer to every member of that team.”