Skip to content
ICE Community blog

ICE President explores digital innovations during East of England visit

13 October 2023

Keith Howells learned about new software and research that can help make material and carbon savings.

ICE President explores digital innovations during East of England visit
During his visit, ICE President Keith Howells participated in a roundtable discussion about sustainable development.

My last UK regional visit was to the East of England, where, apart from the Annual Merit Awards Dinner, I spent an informative day at the Cambridge University Civil Engineering Department.

I was accompanied by President’s Future Leader Rachel Hayden, Elizabeth Orchard, the ICE East of England council representative, and Peter Lawton, chair of the East of England Regional Committee.

The digital transformation

We began the day with a briefing from members of the faculty on some of the innovative research work they were doing.

In particular, the development of software (PANDA) to help reduce carbon in buildings and the “Digital Roads of the Future” programme.

PANDA looks at the stresses in a typical slab, beam and column structure and analyses to what extent the strength of various components (which tend to be standardised) is used.

By identifying the interactive behaviour of the different components, elements which are under-stressed can be identified and lighter designs considered, saving materials and carbon.

That being said, this would require more attention during construction to make sure the right components are being used in the right places!

Using data for asset maintenance

The “Digital Roads” programme is looking at ways of using the massive amounts of sensor information gathered by many modern cars to determine the state of the road surface.

Thus, this would help identify areas where repairs are needed – an interesting example of the potential of ‘big data’ and the ‘internet of things’ to aid asset management.

Talking decarbonisation

We also heard from Jennifer Schooling, director of the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC), about the Carbon Reduction Code she’s spearheaded.

This code aims to encourage organisations in the construction sector to commit to reducing carbon in their work.

Visiting the labs

Following these discussions, we took a tour around some of the laboratories where we learned about the testing of life-size precast sections of the HS2 cut and cover tunnels to assist with guidance on construction tolerances.

Keith Howells visited the university labs to learn more about ongoing research.
Keith Howells visited the university labs to learn more about ongoing research.

We also learned about some of the monitoring work being undertaken on bridges, buildings and slopes using fibre optic sensing.

The Civil Engineering Building which houses the laboratories is ‘wired’, and we learned that the principal members had never been stressed to more than 20% of their capacity.

The implication is that estimation of loads, the application of safety factors and the underestimation of material strengths may be leading to ‘over-conservative’ designs and thus potential to make carbon and materials savings.

Similar results were evident on some of the bridges being monitored, and we had an interesting discussion on the trade-offs between relaxing the codes and standards and the risks.

Discussing sustainable development

We had an informal networking lunch with some of the faculty and post-graduate students.

We then participated in a roundtable where the students from the Centre for Doctoral Training in Future Infrastructure and the Built Environment described some of the research they were undertaking. We debated how this could contribute towards more sustainable development.

Getting geotechnical

In the afternoon, we visited the Geotechnical and Environmental Research Group at the Schofield Centre.

The centre is home to one of the largest Turner beam centrifuges in the country.

It’s used to obtain realistic scaling of loads on many different structures at the structure-soil interface, including dams, wind turbine foundations in seismic risk areas, and tunnels.

Celebrating collaboration

We followed this with a discussion at Churchill College, at which we learned about the Bill Brown Creative Workshops initiative.

They work on forging collaboration between different academic disciplines to address the challenges of the 21st century.

They also have a focus on attracting school children to study STEM subjects, particularly engineering.

The Merit Awards dinner at Churchill College was a lively affair, with trophies presented to the winning teams for their innovative projects and solutions.

Keith Howells thanks everyone who made his visit possible.
Keith Howells thanks everyone who made his visit possible.

A big thank you to Simon Guest, head of Civil Engineering, and the staff at the university who hosted our visit.

In particular, to Dr Dongfang Liang, chair of the ICE Cambridge Branch Committee, as well as to Katherine Etheridge, regional director, and her team for making the arrangements.

  • Keith Howells, president 2022/23 at Institution of Civil Engineers