The recent Smeaton Lecture covered the immense success engineering consultancies have had globally over the past 200 years, and how the huge firms of today were formed as a result of dissolving rules.
Consulting engineers are a crucial, independent voice, giving impartial advice on large building and civil engineering projects, for the peace of mind of all.
That was the view of engineering historian and leading author Hugh Ferguson in delivering the 2020 Smeaton Lecture recently.
The lecture told the extraordinary story of British consulting engineers from their early beginnings, through the establishment of the profession in the 18th century, the ‘Railway Age’ of the 1800s, their post-WWII international boom and on to the recent commercialisation and consolidation of the industry.
You can watch the lecture in full below.
Ferguson summarised how Britain had great success in the field of consulting engineers, especially in the 19th century, based on three key factors:
- The Industrial Revolution happened here and Britain was first to reap the benefits
- London was the centre of the financial world, making it relatively easy to achieve funding for projects
- There was a tendency towards using British engineers, who gave confidence to financial backers
He went on to explore the change of corporate entities over time, reflecting on the three core rules in the Association for Consultancy & Engineering’s original Code of Conduct that lasted until the 1980s:
- No fee competition
- No advertising of services
- No limit to legal liability
A panel discussion followed the lecture exploring how these lessons from the past can inform future civil engineering practice. The discussion was chaired by ICE President Paul Sheffield with contributions from Ferguson, fellow engineering historian Mike Chrimes and the ICE President’s Future Leaders.
A key theme was the quest for net-zero carbon. As Sheffield described it there is quite literally the scope for engineers to “save the world”.
Chrimes, a former ICE Director of Knowledge, reflected how civil engineering luminaries such as Smeaton and Thomas Telford were engaged in carbon reduction as long as 200 years ago, with Smeaton carrying out research into the efficiency of wind and waterpower and Telford writing a report on (wind)mills. He added they would have been guided to solutions through empirical research, just as engineers must be today.
New remote working norm
The discussion moved on to how the lockdown has affected civil engineers’ working practices, with leadership highlighted as a key aspect in how to navigate the ‘new normal’, while earning how to engender trust and joint enterprise remotely will also present a challenge.
Among the potential positives were a growth in contact pools and new global opportunities opened as a result of the switch to remote working, ensuring a quicker transition to the ‘storming’ stage of team development.
Below is a selection of lecture question highlights.