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Collaboration is crucial for combatting climate change

04 December 2020

ICE’s Brunel International lecture heard from geologist and environmental scientist Seth Schultz on the opportunities for the engineering community to deliver a carbon-neutral society. Watch the lecture again below. 

Collaboration is crucial for combatting climate change

The civil engineering industry should worry less about competition so that it can accelerate collaboration to deal with the urgency of climate change, according to Seth Schultz, executive director of The Resilience Shift.

Speaking at the opening of the Brunel International lecture series, 21st Century Leadership is Partnership: How a Coalition of the World’s Engineers Can Change the World, Schultz said that engineers needed to work together as a community practice to share solutions. The coming decade is pivotal in tackling climate change, but it will require “radical partnership, innovation, failure and adaptability,” he said.

Watch the lecture again in full below.

Brunel Lecture recording from ICE Group on Vimeo.

Can we share intellectual property?

Schultz said that information and intellectual property needed to be shared between companies, but engineering firms tended not to do that out of a belief that the only thing that sets them apart is their staff and their project experience.

“Well, why are we still worried about that when the market is going to triple in 10 years? Why are we going to worry about that when we don't have enough engineers to do it?” asked Schultz.

Schultz helped create some of the world's largest networks of cities working to tackle climate change, such as the C40 Cities and the Coalition for Urban Transitions. Through this, he has seen how intensified collaboration has accelerated action on climate change.

“As cities started practicing deep collaboration, they started leap-frogging the standard policy and implementation cycles. They were shortening the delivery timeframe by experimenting with radical collaboration to implement solutions at the speed and scale that climate change demanded,” he said.

Cities were encouraged to share failures as well as successes, and major advancements were made in terms of willingness to set ambitious climate goals and rolling out policies to achieve them, he said.

Engineering sector vs tech sector

Schultz believes that the engineering sector should be more like the tech sector in how it collaborates with government to help shape policy up front. Current practices in engagement and procurement created difficulties for the engineering community, he said. When cities ask for advice from the engineering community, any company that provides it is then precluded from bidding on the tender, which is the more attractive option, he said.

“But what tech companies do, is collaborate with multiple organisations at the same time, so no one has an advantage. They communicate with government on new processes and mechanisms that allow that transparency, to help shape the problem up front.

“And I think the engineering community can start thinking much more radically about how they could put forward efforts through associations and other collaborative mechanisms that help you with that up-front problem framing, without precluding themselves from being able to bid on the downstream work,” he said.

“Why aren’t the CEOs of the 20 largest engineering companies getting together every year to figure out what we need to do, and how we can share information? I think we need to get a little bit out of the technical conversation and start a much more strategic conversation about how we're going to do this,” he said.

More collaboration would be powerful - Rachel Skinner

ICE president Rachel Skinner agreed that more collaboration between engineers could be very powerful, but would require “being brave”.

“We're a very widespread group of professionals all over the world, this isn't about waiting for permission or license, we just need to get on, and realise that we have the power to actually make change and be really proactive about that, rather than reactive,” she said.

Cliff Francis, ICE president’s future leader for 2020-21 and a project manager with contractor nmcn, said that he would be “really excited” to see competitive organisations talk to each other. “That's not to say that they don't - I see a lot of good things that do happen between organisations. But there's a huge pipeline of work coming where we will be required to work together,” he said.

Schultz also noted that engineers sometimes focused on “outputs instead of outcomes”, which had led to unintended consequences such as flooded infrastructure and deteriorating air quality. “Of course, these challenges go well beyond civil engineering or engineering more broadly, but it could nevertheless be argued that there have been significant failings within the engineering community to anticipate the negative impacts associated with their work, along with a lack of nimbleness to be innovative and adapt to the changing needs of society.”

Though engineers were not intending to cause harm, a lack of awareness of complex interconnected systems, or following poorly structured project scopes, could lead to problems, he said.

Schultz will be virtually presenting his thoughts on climate action to engineering communities in all parts of the globe over the coming year. He stressed that this would be “a listening tour, not a lecture tour”. Other parts of the world, especially in developing countries, would have different priorities on climate change as they are already experiencing its impacts, he said.

“It's a radically different issue. They need resilience, adaptation and security. The types of projects you need to design are very different than the ones that you would design in New York and London,” he said.

Schultz wants to discuss five key actions he believes the engineering community will need to ensure that it is ready for the coming decade. These are developing skills and diversity in the workforce; attracting, recognising and rewarding these skills and encouraging innovation; fostering a shared understanding and new vision for the role of the engineer; promoting more engineers in policy and governance; and collaboration, both internally and externally.

“I view this as a once in a lifetime opportunity, at exactly the right moment, to speak to you about why I believe 21st century leadership is partnership and why engineers specifically have a huge role to play in ensuring the safety and continuity of the human species,” he said.

Learn more about the Brunel International Lecture Series, and upcoming lectures here.

Look out for the latest updates to our Brunel International Lecture series in our rolling news updates here.

  • Catherine Early, member of the knowledge team at ICE