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David Orr (ICE's 143rd President)

David Orr (ICE's 143rd President)

strategic adviser - major infrastructure


Construction, Project Management


Northern Ireland
My highlights

Meeting the ICE members in every UK region and in various countries in Europe, Asia and America.

Chairing the ICE Council, which at that time was the trustee body charged with governing the institution and acting in its best interests.

Representing the ICE at the highest levels of government and to other professional bodies.

What was your presidential theme and what inspired it?

My presidential theme was to celebrate civil engineers and civil engineering being at the heart of society. 

To achieve this, I said we must all stand up for:

  • The value of civil engineering;
  • The highest professional standards;
  • Excellence in procurement; and
  • The unsung heroes of our profession.

Leaders succeed if they can win respect, and this comes from competence, fairness, kindness, understanding and common sense, with a little bit of character and personality mixed in.

Who or what inspired you to apply to be ICE president?

Oh, I didn’t apply to become president – never in a million years did I imagine I’d be elected to that great office. 

But after serving six years as an ICE Trustee and Council member, I was thrilled to be invited to become the ICE’s 143rd president – and only the second to live and work in Northern Ireland. 

In the run-up to my presidency I drew great inspiration from some of my predecessors, not least Professor Adrian Long, the 138th President, who was my professor when I studied at Queens University Belfast.

Insights from an ICE past president

What makes a good ICE president?

Someone who understands they are there to act in the best interests of the institution, its members and wider society, and not for their own reputation or prestige.

What do you think is the most important quality in a leader?

When I joined the ICE Council, and first met many of the very senior leaders of our profession, I expected them to be aloof and unapproachable, thrusting and ambitious.

But I quickly discovered they were ordinary people, just like the rest of us.

Leaders succeed if they can win respect, and this comes from competence, fairness, kindness, understanding and common sense, with a little bit of character and personality mixed in.

Did you learn any lessons during your presidency that you have taken forward in your career?

I learned that common sense is a quality that is highly valued, but actually rather rare the higher up an organisation that you go.

Which individual project or person inspired you to become a civil engineer?

I had been inspired to become a civil engineer by my uncle, Malcolm Orr, who was a municipal engineer in the highways department of Belfast Corporation.

I remember him taking me to the opening of the new Queen Elizabeth Bridge in Belfast by Queen Elizabeth II.

What’s your #1 piece of advice for someone just starting their career as a civil engineer?

In 1818, several young engineers working on great Victorian civil engineering projects realised that they needed to improve their knowledge and skills by sharing their experiences.

They formed the Institution of Civil Engineers and wrote to the great civil engineer, Thomas Telford, who was a giant of the profession, to become their president.

(By the way, he replied that he was "honoured by their unexpected invitation, and feared that the want of various necessary qualifications, might prevent me from succeeding as a president; but a sense of duty and gratitude induce me to accept the office until a fitter person can be selected". He went on to serve for the next 16 years…)

My point is that, as you start out on your career, it’s vitally important to engage with, and learn from, other civil engineers and to develop your knowledge, skills and experience.

And the best way to do that is through a professional institution like the ICE.

What are the most important skills for civil engineers today?

  • Knowledge and experience
  • Integrity and diligence
  • Fairness and kindness

Tell us how you work with people to create or foster diversity in the workplace.

I believe in encouraging everyone, and especially those from minority communities, to recognise the opportunities that are available and to grasp them with confidence.

The best civil engineers are those who have been determined to become one, despite adversity and hardship, rather than those who simply drift into the profession.

How do we address climate change?

We’ve had tremendous leadership on climate change and net zero from our recent ICE PresidentsRachel Skinner and Ed McCann, for example.

But not everyone is in a leadership position, and sometimes we wonder what difference we can make as individual civil engineers.

However, the point is that there are nearly 100,000 of us in this institution.

We can all do our bit, whether it’s by efficient design, getting things right first time thus avoiding waste in construction, including sustainability as procurement criteria, or promoting schemes which reduce harmful emissions.

And if each one of us does their bit, then collectively we can make a great difference.

Do you have a core philosophy/motto?

I would say that integrity, diligence, experience and a little kindness will definitely stand you in good stead.

What do you think is the greatest challenge the industry is facing and how can civil engineers overcome this issue?

For the last two 200 years, the mission of civil engineers has been to deliver projects which bring incredible improvements to the health and wellbeing of society.

Now, we have the added challenge of doing that in a sustainable way, being prudent in our use of resources and striving to reduce harmful emissions.

Career highlights

Most of my career was as a construction client and procurement specialist in Northern Ireland. 

I ended up as a Permanent Secretary of the Department for Regional Development where I was responsible as accounting officer for all public roads, water/wastewater, and public transport in Northern Ireland. 

Over the last 10 years I’ve specialised in giving strategic advice and assurance to the boards of major programmes, especially in relation to procurement and delivery. 

These include Crossrail, HS2 and the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster.