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Former President’s Future Leader and Site Engineer with Taylor Woodrow, Hayley Jackson, discusses the future of civil engineering in relation to Professor Richard Susskind’s 2015 book, The Future of Professions, ahead of their ICE Strategy Session appearances.
Part of Susskind's argument is that digital technologies will enable many tasks to be broken up into smaller parts, with some parts done by technology and the remaining pieces outsourced to cheaper technicians, whether within the UK and other post-industrialised economies, or outsourced to emerging economies. However, the question is whether this will be enough to fulfil customer and client requirements long-term.
Digital systems will no doubt have the capacity to run programmes, collect data and complete repeatable tasks much more quickly than the human mind can process, however I wonder whether a machine or robot will have ever have the creativity, innovations and problem-solving skills of the human mind. For example, looking at a challenging geotechnical problem on a construction site; will a machine really have the skills to be able to analyse and develop the best solution without any input from engineers?
I think machines will have the capability to collect data, site evidence and samples much more quickly, which will reduce the time it takes to be able to have all the information to analyse. However, in my opinion, the creativity and innovations generated by groups of engineers and designers will struggle to be recreated in the database of a machine.
Changes in digital technology will undoubtably modify the way of working for civil engineers. Improvements in the capability of digital technology have the potential to provide benefits to the construction industry including automated plant and equipment, reducing the people-plant interface which ultimately will improve health and safety on a construction site, drones for site surveys, and precast manufacturing.
In response to these technologies, the skills and requirements of civil engineering professions will change. For example, early career professionals may need to adapt to working alongside machines that complete what would have been a ‘traditional’ graduate engineering role and be prepared to manage new technologies in construction. Mid-career and late career professionals will also need to be adaptable and upskill as necessary to work with the changes in the use of technology.
Covid-19 has made digital transformation even more important. Travel times for face-to-face meetings and the need for large office spaces have been reduced by meetings on digital platforms. With sustainability at the heart of many of our discussions, using technology to reduce our carbon footprint can only be a positive.
Technology has many positive impacts for the construction industry and will continue to transform our ways of working over the coming years, however I think we’re decades away from being in a position close to having a machine that can complete even half the work that an engineer can. Embracing technology in our ways of working will be key, whilst still recognising that human interaction will remain a critical part of our industry.
Hayley is hosting a Q&A as part of the ICE Strategy Session: Covid-19, Artificial Intelligence, and the future of the Civil Engineer. Sign up here.
Read more on how digital transformation is changing the civil engineering industry in our Community blog here.
What skills will civil engineers need in the future? Read more on our Community blog here.
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