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.
The impact of Covid-19 has the potential to influence the civil engineering profession for years to come, particularly with respect to digital technologies.
ICE is now hosting regional, national and international events all through virtual platforms, addressing much larger audiences from members and non-members all over the world. For example, Rachel Skinner’s Presidential Address, reached the largest ever audience of over 2,000.
So what will be the impact on the civil engineering industry in a few years’ time when there have been further potential technological advancements?
Business models will need to evolve
Professor Richard Susskind – keynote speaker at the next ICE Strategy Session - Covid-19, AI and the Future Civil Engineer - argues professional tasks and business models of professions will need to evolve to capture the economy of knowledge and sophisticated digital technologies being developed. Whilst not specific to the engineering industry, he captures the transformative rate of change in digital technology that faces many global professions. With processes becoming more digital every day, and having improved capability and more adaptability, they can become automated and complete professional tasks that would have previously been fulfilled by a skilled human.
Customers and clients are often looking to achieve more value in their products or services for cheaper prices. With the increasing capability of digital technology, Susskind argues that, if professional tasks can be completed at the same standard or better and at cheaper costs, by digital processes, then there may be a change in trend in the sourcing of professional products and services. They may be outsourced to more freelance or process-based companies with automated and digital technologies. With the increased reliability, efficiency and reduced cost of digital processes, professional services are likely to move to a more automated way of working with fewer tasks and services that require human input.
Can machines do everything?
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.
What does this mean for civil engineers?
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.