Time to engage public and shake off our 'technical calculator' image

Following a highly anticipated Presidential Address, ICE’s new President calls on the engineers behind our infrastructure to talk more about how their work improves people’s lives.

Sir John Armitt set out his vision for the profession at his Presidential Address at ICE on 3 November 2015
Sir John Armitt set out his vision for the profession at his Presidential Address at ICE on 3 November 2015

Throughout my career I’ve been lucky to have worked on some significant and high profile infrastructure projects, not least the delivery of the venues and infrastructure for the 2012 London Olympic Games. Many have involved technical genius and ground breaking engineering firsts.

Inspiring the public

The public were awe-inspired at structures like the Velodrome, and many would argue that the Olympics helped to thrust civil engineering into the spotlight. Crossrail has had a similar effect – giant 1,000 tonne machines each 150 metres long carving miles of twin tunnels under our capital. The public and media have been brought along for the journey, we all see the vision coming to life, and it showcases our engineering capability.

Largely however, when it comes to infrastructure development, the public are understandably less concerned with our technical genius, and more concerned with the impact of our work.

I had the pleasure of being involved in what was the Channel Tunnel rail link, now referred to as HS1. This project, with its numerous route options and impact on local communities, was as much about public relations as engineering.

At the time it entailed the largest ever environmental impact assessment. It required engineers to work closely with planners, property consultants, environmental specialists, parliamentary lawyers, heritage bodies and many other professionals.

Yet when the BBC arrived to make a film about the project, there was dismay that very little of their filming focused on the detailed engineering work and technical input.

Benefits over concerns

We should not be discouraged by the fact that our work is often measured by its impact - both during construction and in operation. It’s the long-term benefit we bring that is important.

Public interest in our work is as much driven by fear of disrupted lives as it is by a promise of convenience, speed or improved quality of life.

This can make for compelling stories in the media. The challenge for us as civil engineers is to address these fears, not dismiss them as interference.

Our ability to articulate our challenges in public, to explain – in plain language – what we are trying to achieve and why, to show empathy, to be prepared to consider alternative solutions and to put ourselves in the public’s shoes is absolutely vital if we are to gain sufficient political and popular support, without which major projects cannot proceed.

Speaking clearly

ICE – and each of us as individual engineers – has an important role here. We must all do more to communicate the long-term benefits of investing in our nation’s infrastructure, and we must do it in a way that avoids technical and complicated language that people outside our industry do not understand or associate with.

I come back to my point about the BBC coming to film the Channel Tunnel project. They were less focused on filming the technical engineering because this is less likely to engage the ‘mainstream’ viewer. The BBC knew the public would be more interested in the people, the personalities, the relationships on site, why we are doing something and the challenge of working together to make it happen– the human angle.

It’s time for us to get more ‘tuned in’ to how we engage with the public. It’s time for us to shake off our image as the ‘technical calculators’ and get better at communicating who we are, what we are trying to do and importantly, why we are doing it. I look forward to driving this ethos forward during my term as ICE President.

About the author

  • Sir John Armitt

    Sir John Armitt is the 151st ICE President, serving his year in office from November 2015.

    Sir John is also chairman of the National Express Group and City & Guilds, and deputy chairman of the Berkeley Group.His previous roles include chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, chief executive of Costain and chief executive of Network Rail.