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How many civil engineers does it take to change the world?

18 February 2021

Can 2021 be the year that the engineering profession truly grasps the challenge of combatting climate change and shows the world what it can achieve?

How many civil engineers does it take to change the world?
Engineers doing things the way they’ve always done them will not address climate change. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

How many engineers does it take to change the world? This is the provocative question being posed by ICE’s 2020/21 Brunel Lecture Series lecturer Seth Schultz.

Schultz, executive director of global think tank The Resilience Shift, is deliberately out to provoke a reaction from the ICE’s membership. He's happy to declare that he's not an engineer himself - but is proud to have surrounded himself with them through his professional and personal life.

He is unequivocal of the key role engineers must play in addressing the gigantic challenges presented by climate change - but is clear that a fundamental change in thinking is required for engineers to step up to that role.

Existing engineers need 'massive retraining'

In his words, a “massive repurposing and retraining” of existing engineers is needed to make up for the skills gap in the sector in tackling climate change.

While the confidence, trust and rigour of the engineering profession came through codification, the practice has calcified, he believes: "The very way we do business needs to be torn down, rethought, and rebuilt."

And while the idea of throwing away the security blanket of established codes and standards is heresy to many a professional engineer – the numbers quoted by Schultz in his lecture underline the fact that reliance on the status quo is just not acceptable.

Relying on the status quo is no longer acceptable

Expenditure on infrastructure worldwide is set to rise from the present £2.0tr annually to £5.1tr in order to achieve “only” a two degree rise in global temperatures – when the target to sustaining an adequately stable climate is 1.5°C.

As Schutz challenges: surely it's unethical to spend that sum of money on infrastructure and still miss the target the nations of the world have set us? It's a bold lecture, for sure.

Schultz gave his opening lecture on 2 December 2020 and is now, due to Covid, on a virtual global tour, taking in seven “stops” around the world, as he presents 21st Century Leadership is Partnership: How a Coalition of the World’s Engineers Can Change the World.

Regional lectures include a bespoke version of the opening lecture with more time allocated for discussion between Schultz and key industry leaders in the region.

The big question in December was how would the regions of the world engage with Schultz’s provocation. But now, with the East Asian and European legs completed and the Middle East leg coming in the next few weeks, the clear indication is that Schultz’s message is landing – and landing well.

More than 2,000 members and non-members have now either watched or registered to watch Schultz’s lecture series and the debate triggered has spilled beyond the lecture and into social media and the letters pages of New Civil Engineer.

It bodes well as the lecture series continues through 2021 and builds towards a concluding lecture back in the UK and timed to coincide with the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), a landmark global event.

Share your carbon successes

ICE is planning a co-ordinated industry presence at this hugely important event and knowledge, stories and case studies that Schultz is picking up on his global “tour” will all feed into the ICE’s activities at COP.

These activities centre on ICE showcasing what the engineering profession can and is doing to support governments worldwide in meeting their high-level carbon reduction targets.

The ICE’s Carbon Champions will personify that effort and so the call to all our members is simple – share your carbon success stories by signing up. We truly want to be able to showcase what we as a profession can do and we can only do that with your help and your stories.

Climate change remains one of the biggest challenges facing the world – the outlook could not be any clearer. If global average temperatures rise is above 2°C, catastrophic damage will be done to the planet.

So what’s the answer to Schultz’s question? How many engineers does it take to change the world? You’ll have to watch one of his lectures to find out!

Watch Seth Schultz' lecture series

Get involved

  • Mark Hansford, director of engineering knowledge at Institution of Civil Engineers