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The Forth Road Bridge inspired me to become a civil engineer

19 February 2020

ICE Warren Medal award winner and MBE Mike Gardiner remembers his journey into civil engineering; how the Forth Road bridge inspired him and how a pan-engineering approach helped with his professional development.

The Forth Road Bridge inspired me to become a civil engineer

My inspiration for becoming a civil engineer was the building of the Forth Road Bridge. Built in the early 1960s, this scheme seemed to me the epitome of structural design. At school I was always interested in all aspects of engineering.

My subsequent career since those early schooldays, has been richly rewarding, culminating in 2001 with an MBE for services to the professional engineering institutions in NE England and most recently, in 2019 with the Warren Medal for long and devoted service to ICE. Truly a career peak!

My involvement with ICE started in my student days in 1963 when I was elected a student liaison officer for the old Northern Counties Association. This involved organising evening meetings initially for the Graduates and Students and subsequently for the main regional committee.

I was partly instrumental in setting up the Northumbria Branch in an effort to bring some formality to the ad hoc nature of the Association at that time. (Teesside and Cumbria Branches had existed for some time but the Tyne and Wear members were informally referred to by our Teesside colleagues as ‘The Geordie Rump!’)

Having served for several years as the inaugural Secretary of Northumbria Branch, I got involved with the Northern Branch of the former Council of Engineering Institutions and, in particular, the schools liaison and outreach work of this organisation, working alongside IMech, IEE and IChemE professionals.

I regard this pan-engineering approach as a major factor in my professional development and was initially very disappointed when the Engineering Council, which took over the roles of CEI, eventually decided to pull out of all regional and outreach activities. It took a few years for this situation to settle down and we now enjoy a good and productive working relationship with Engineering UK.

On taking early retirement in 1998, I joined the ICE North East Seniors Group and subsequently was elected secretary to the group, a post I held for 10 years until I became chairman in 2017.

Perhaps my most productive time was during the summer of 2018 when I was very much involved in helping to deliver the Great North Engineering Experience, a pan-institution contribution to the Great Exhibition of the North. The total footfall over the ten weeks that it ran was just over 42,000. As we say in Geordieland, that’s a canny few people to enlighten on the virtues of civil engineering!

All of this took place with my day job in the County Engineer’s Department of Durham County Council. The Council took a generally benign view but occasionally work pressures had to take precedence and the whole process resembled a major civil engineering project with a high level of project planning being the order of the day.

I usually summarise my career as fifteen years of designing and building new roads to speed up the traffic, fifteen years of transport planning and five years of designing traffic calming schemes to slow down the traffic that I had previously helped to speed up!

In the public transport planning stage of my career, it was a constant battle with my car-based highways colleagues to get across the message that for the elderly sector of the population, a 400 metres walk to the nearest but stop represented a significant distance. With an ageing population, this is more relevant now than it was some thirty years ago.

Nowadays, civil engineering is much more about addressing the sustainability aspects of our modern lifestyle with global warming much more a threat than it was perceived to be fifty years ago. The current civil engineering graduate is as likely to work on projects that do not involve building massive infrastructure to address an immediate perceived need as on the more traditional interpretation of civil engineering.

In this respect, a questioning approach to some of the more extreme ideas of politicians and others with regard to renewable energy sources, autonomous vehicles, etc is, I would suggest, a useful asset.

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Find out more about the Warren Medal and other ICE Awards

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