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Professor Paul Jowitt (ICE's 145th President)

Professor Paul Jowitt (ICE's 145th President)

professor of civil engineering systems, Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh


Systems thinking, Sustainability


My highlights

Working with my 12 Presidential Apprentices (Future Leaders) who were drawn from the UK, China, Ghana, Hong Kong, Ireland, Nigeria, South Africa, the USA, and Zimbabwe, and who produced An Engineer’s Toolkit for a Developing World. We started on it the day after my presidential address and launched it 11 months later.

Leading the ICE, internally and externally, at a time of great change.

Meeting and listening to the ICE membership and being inspired by their achievements, for example, the West Midlands Graduate and Students (G&S) Committee. Their work with Engineers for Overseas Development (EFOD) on a grain store and mill in Uganda scooped top prize at the West Midlands awards dinner. Absolutely brilliant. 

What was your presidential theme and what inspired it?

'Now is the Time' to address climate change and poverty reduction, by:

  • Engineering the world away from an environmental crisis caused in part by previous generations in terms of energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and their contribution to climate change.  
  • Providing the infrastructure platform for an increasingly urbanised world and lifting a large proportion of the world’s growing population out of poverty and the associated problems encapsulated by the UN Millennium Development Goals

These themes were a culmination of many things along the path of my engineering career – systems thinking and engineering decision-making, and my work with the ICE on sustainability.

It was a call for an engineering renaissance to take us safely through the rest of this century and beyond.

It was about asking engineers to engage in a process – a test of reality not a test of laboratory. 

About how we decide to do this or do that – and to avoid surprise. 

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

It wasn’t so much a case of applying to be president but thinking that I could do it and do it well.

I spoke informally with various ICE colleagues and friends, including a couple of ICE vice presidents, and they agreed to put my name forward.

Insights from an ICE past president

What makes a good ICE president?

Foresight and vision – they are not the same!

You need foresight to see what might be coming our way; and vision to decide what we want to do about it.

And passion.

The president must also have a track record of activity within the ICE, and have the capability of leading it, and be prepared to put the time and effort into the role.

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


Leaders have a variety of characteristics which reflect their own personality and the organisation they are in. There is no formula.

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

I think it reinforced some lessons already learned:

  • If you make a mistake, acknowledge it and try to sort it out.
  • Be patient – it doesn’t mean you have to be less determined.
  • Enjoy life!

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

I remember seeing a black and white TV programme about the Kariba Dam when I was nine years old!

But far more important were the people who inspired me or became my mentors/heroes as my career developed.

Brian Hutchinson was a structural engineer with Husband & Co (now Mott MacDonald) who I worked for between school and college. Brian showed me the importance of observation and sketching.     

And my academic mentors. Ian Munro, my PhD supervisor at Imperial College, and his great friends, Colin Brown from the USA and David Elms in New Zealand.

They introduced me to systems and systems thinking.

And if I were a young person starting out on their career now, I’d be inspired by Greta Thunberg.

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

Be curious, observe what’s around you and ask questions. Keep a journal!

What are the most important skills for civil engineers today?

There is a great deal of emphasis on STEM subjects, but these are focussed on left-hand side of the brain thinking.

We need more right hand side of the brain thinking, so we need to add some 'A' - awareness, attitude, aptitude, application, aspiration, art! Some systems thinking! Some STEAM!

It’s important that engineers are technically competent and have ready mental access to their engineers toolkit.

But it’s equally vital that they understand the context of civil engineering and how it relates to the environment, society and the economy.

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

Higher education is a very diverse environment, certainly in terms of the students. 

My first PhD student was from Nigeria. Since then, I have had PhD students from China, Greece, Malaysia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, Kurdistan and the UK.

I’ve learnt from all of them. 

When I selected my 12 ICE Presidential Apprentices, I ensured they came from a variety of countries and there was a gender balance. 

How do we address climate change?

I’ve been campaigning on this for over 20 years.

It was a key theme of my 2006 ICE Brunel Lecture and my 2009 ICE Presidential Address.

The most effective thing I can do is to persuade others – through my teaching, published papers, letters to the press, and face-to-face dialogue.

Do you have a core philosophy/motto?

Take a systems view of the world and make sure to set the system boundaries wide enough.

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

Providing the critical infrastructure upon which civilisation depends.

More bluntly - saving the planet and humanity’s place in it.

Career highlights

  • Putting research into practice. For example, by developing the first practical, real-time pump optimisation system for a water supply system for a UK water PLC and setting up a spinout company to deliver it.

  • Delivering the ICE’s 6th Brunel Lecture to 45 audiences worldwide and becoming the 145th president of the ICE. 

  • Seeing how my students have succeeded in their careers! 

Education and career

  • Decision making in civil engineering systems PhD at Imperial College London.
  • Lectureship in systems and mechanics, then water resources systems engineering at Imperial (1974-1986)
  • Head of the combined Department of Civil and Offshore Engineering at Heriot Watt (1991-1999)
  • Executive director of the Scottish Institute of Sustainable Technology (SISTech), a Heriot Watt University/MWH joint venture spinout company. The firm provided consultancy in sustainable development in the natural and built environments (1999 to 2014).
  • Professor of civil engineering systems at Heriot Watt University (1987-present)

Membership of other bodies and committees