Civil engineers - facing future challenges

In a recent blog article, I reflected on the Civil Engineering Triennial Summit while emphasising the challenge posed by climate change. In this follow-up piece I’ll look at some of the ways civil engineers can meet this challenge.

New York City
New York City's daily carbon dioxide emissions visualised as one-tonne spheres. Image: Carbon Visuals, via Flickr
  • Updated: 07 January, 2016
  • Author: Alex Crump, ICE President's Apprentice

Integration vs resilience

Infrastructure resilience was a recurring theme of the summit. Professor Chris Rodgers (University of Birmingham) described the national significance of local resilience strategies while highlighting the critical need to avoid cascade (or domino) failures of our infrastructure systems.

Civil engineers are proud to create infrastructure that allows our high quality of life; it connects businesses with customers, enables access to education and healthcare and links our communities. However, as society grows ever-more dependent on these systems we must ensure they remain resilient.

The potential benefits of smart infrastructure and improved data management have been widely publicised but they should be designed so as to not compromise resilience. Craig Davis (Los Angeles Department of Water and Power) described how data management systems can enable Los Angeles (a city at risk of earthquakes, fire and drought) to respond quickly to such disasters and recover. However, there is a danger that smart, efficient systems could create new security risks. For example, ‘electronic’ cities will require resilient power supply and distribution.

There is therefore a need for efficient and integrated infrastructure with minimal interdependencies to ensure these systems are resilient and can recover quickly.

Engineers as communicators

Traditionally engineers are not considered great communicators but it is not acceptable to hide behind this excuse – we must improve. This has been perfectly illustrated by the recent floods in northern England. Within the industry we are aware that flood defences are designed for extreme events such as a one in 100 year storm and as such realise that there’s a 1 per cent chance of the specified event occurring in each year.

However, it has become apparent that this understanding differs from the anticipated levels of protection that affected residents expected to receive from relatively new flood defences. We must get better at communicating technical information in a way that is understood by the necessary stakeholders, particularly at a time when it may not be practical for all infrastructure to remain fully operational at all times.

Professor Jennifer Whyte (Laing O’Rourke, Royal Academy of Engineering) also discussed communication in her presentation around intelligent data management. Whyte described how we’re moving towards a world with distributed data at everyone’s fingertips. How this is disseminated amongst owners, operators and users will be crucial; the communication challenge facing civil engineers is evolving and we must address this. Professor David Balmforth (chair of the event and Past ICE President) summarised astutely in his closing remarks by stating that it is not enough to communicate with stakeholders, we must engage them.

What’s next?

The Civil Engineering Triennial Summit highlighted some of the biggest threats and opportunities facing the industry. There is a need for resilience in the face of a changing climate and as our infrastructure becomes more data-driven it will become ever more vital for civil engineers to ensure effective communication and data distribution.

I look forward to the publication of an action list from this event to ensure that the wide-ranging, thought-provoking discussions are circulated amongst the 300,000 international members of the three institutions involved.

About the author

Alex Crump is an ICE President’s Apprentice for 2015-16.