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Civil engineers need to 'understand the social implications' of what they do

08 September 2021

The latest Brunel lecture in South Asia argued that the cost of 'inaction' was greater than the cost of action, when it comes to the climate crisis.

Civil engineers need to 'understand the social implications' of what they do

Civil engineers need to better understand the social impact of their work, ICE’s regional chair for South Asia told attendees at the latest session in the 13th Brunel International Lecture series.

“I worked on the Jamuna Bridge project in Bangladesh – the engineers saw it as an engineering project, but for the civil servant in charge it was a social welfare programme,” Tim Khan, who is also ICE representative for Bangladesh, said.

“We need to learn from that language and understand the social implications of what we do.”

The effect of climate change on South Asia

The role of civil engineers in the climate crisis was debated at the event, with Khan highlighting the dangers being faced in the region as a result of it.

“Some 58% of Bangladesh is less than 6m above sea level. It is the most densely populated country in the world so you can imagine the consequences of small rising sea levels and how many more people will be adversely affected.”

With its low sea levels, drought-hit lands, monsoons and cyclones, South Asia is a geographically diverse region that is home to some of the most vulnerable countries to climate change.

“In the past 10 years, nearly 700 million people were affected by one or more climate-related disasters,” said Matt Colton, ICE Council member for Asia Pacific, citing World Bank data.

“The growing impacts of global warming have already pushed more than 18 million people to migrate within the region.”

The recently published Sixth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed that the climate crisis is acute.

According to Seth Schultz, executive director of The Resilience Shift and this year’s Brunel lecturer, “we need to get engineering knowledge back in the process” of dealing with the crisis.

“The cost of inaction is much higher than the cost of action... in particular in a region such as South Asia,” he said.

COP26 offers a chance to collaborate

The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow in November, will be an opportunity to discuss how the profession can work in partnership with others, the panellists argued.

Schultz said he was not “overly optimistic” that COP26 would deliver results. Still, the pandemic has meant that processes have started to move more quickly and there is a new leadership role for the public sector. National governments understand the severity of human impacts on climate change and are trying to work out how to address the issue.

“That’s where civil engineering comes back into the process,” Schultz said. “We need to tackle the challenges on multiple fronts. We need to allow engineers to be innovative and creative while providing the right standards, policies and legislation. This includes governments but also engineering consultancies. We need to change current information flow and encourage greater collaboration within the engineering community itself.”

Attracting local talent

The region has the right people, qualifications and skills to address the climate challenge, said Smita Sawdadkar, ICE representative for Bengaluru.

India has the youngest population in the world and is a global leader in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). “We need to make use of digitalisation and technology. We should be proud of our local talent and make the most of it,” she said.

Tondup Wangail, an ICE President’s Future Leader 2020-21, emphasised the role of young engineers in driving the net zero agenda.

“We are the first generation to see the impacts of the climate crisis,” he said, commenting that renewable energy is not currently a popular subject among engineering students.

“We need to ensure that engineers are rewarded and that the renewable sector is marketed positively,” he said.

Malith Mendis, ICE representative for Sri Lanka, said that the country was a world leader in attracting women into STEM studies.

According to the University of Grants Commission, females accounted for 49% of undergraduate enrolments in STEM subjects in 2017, but less than half of that figure – only 24% - were enrolled in engineering. Even fewer graduate and stay in employment. Cultural barriers, regional quotas and institutional challenges often discourage women to join and remain in the profession.

“Attracting and retaining women in civil engineering would bring great benefits and it will have to be a local, regional and global effort,” Mendis concluded.

Seth Schultz has been travelling virtually around the world to present this year’s Brunel series, “21st-century leadership is partnership: how a coalition of the world’s engineers can change the world”, alongside regional panels of industry thought leaders.


Seth Schultz, 13th Brunel lecturer

Opening remarks: Matt Colton, ICE Council member for Asia Pacific

Chair: Mark Hansford, ICE director of engineering knowledge


Tim Khan, ICE regional chair for South Asia and ICE representative for Bangladesh

Smita Sawdadkar, ICE representative for Bengaluru

Tondup Wangail, ICE President’s Future Leader 2020-21, India

Malith Mendis, ICE representative for Sri Lanka

  • Virag Martin, International Policy Manager