Over the next 15 years, the OECD has estimated that around $103 trillion investment is needed to support our ageing critical infrastructure systems globally. This will require the civil engineering community to be ready to deliver this investment, says Seth Schultz.
Engineers have played a significant role in shaping global societal and economic developments throughout history. But now is a good time to address whether we’ve got things right. Are our solutions as good as they could be? For example, does a dependency on fossil fuel or car-centered cities meet our obligations as civil engineers to show due regard for the environment and protect the health and wellbeing of current and future generations?
Let’s be clear, we didn’t set out to do the wrong thing. Times are changing and continue to change around us. Covid-19 is a recent example of one of the critical global challenges we face. Urbanisation and the climate crisis are also front of mind. All of these are associated with significant complex global interdependencies, along with deep uncertainties that question the status quo.
A challenge to the global engineering community
I'm honoured to be asked to give this latest Brunel International Lecture Series and it is an opportunity to put some tough questions and challenges to the global engineering community.
We will question whether our current approaches to engineering need to rapidly change and adapt to our complex, changing and uncertain world. We will explore what skills and people we might need to make our society carbon neutral by mid-century based on what scientists are telling us is required to keep climate change from making catastrophic impacts to our planet. While also drawing on and understanding more about the regional challenges around the globe.
Can civil engineers learn anything from the tech industry, which has seen rapid expansion and innovation over recent decades, while reflecting on the important and established code of practices and ethics that the civil engineering community is proudly and rightly based upon?
A massive societal opportunity
But here’s the silver lining, it’s not all doom and gloom, it represents a massive societal opportunity to bridge ourselves from the current situation into the future we need to have. That’s where engineers come in. Engineers are in the eye of the storm, and they are trusted to deliver a better future for us all! I’ll argue that 21st Century leadership is partnership, and how now more than ever we need to collaborate to deliver the world that we want to live in and would be happy to leave to future society.
The lecture series will draw on the work of the International Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure and The Resilience Shift, both of which are seeking to bring together multiple actors to deliver sustainable and resilient infrastructure.
Now is the time to think about the bigger picture and the opportunity that sustainable and resilient infrastructure presents us in term of societal benefits that support the delivery of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
We have a huge opportunity from the potential of post-Covid economic stimuli, such as investment in infrastructure and critical systems with a view to stimulating economic recovery. The engineering community can contribute to these decisions that require us to pick the right infrastructure projects to fund and then design and build them with resilience in mind from the outset. This will give us not only the short-term economic benefit of construction activity now but also the long-term benefits of sustainability and resilience.
Upgrading infrastructure systems
A staggering amount of investment will be needed in addition, in the years to come, to provide infrastructure for overcrowded cities around the world and provide access to infrastructure that many people do not yet have. Simultaneously we need to upgrade and retrofit the existing, ageing and crumbling legacy infrastructure in
The engineering community will be at the heart of the action, and we need to challenge ourselves whether we have the right capabilities to deal with the complex systemic challenges ahead of us. Can we train enough young people from diverse backgrounds and build a more geopolitically diverse workforce? Does the definition of engineering itself need to evolve?
We’ll be tackling these and other tough questions as we talk with experts in each region of the world over the next year to understand their local differences and hear their perspectives.
I hope you’ll join me on this journey.