Engineers must become more creative and less compliance-led to tackle climate challenges

Tapping into creative capabilities and thinking differently are critical for civil engineers to make a meaningful input to the climate crisis, according to The Resilience Shift CEO Seth Schultz.

Schultz made the comments earlier this week while presenting his final lecture in the ICE’s Brunel Lecture series. In a break with the normal format for the series, Schultz used the sessions, which were held online in eight different regions around the world over the last year, as “listening” sessions.

Schultz expected to get push back from delegates attending sessions as he challenged them on the need to change in order to respond to the climate crisis but says he was pleasantly surprised by the broad agreement on the challenges ahead. Schultz says that the attention then turned to focus on the barriers that are preventing that change from happening.

The eight regional events attracted a record-breaking 3,000 participants and Schultz said that this level of engagement allowed him to understand the broader issues, as well as the more regional specific ones too (see box for regional discussion focus).

The focus in the European session discussion on how the world is changing faster than the design codes led to the call from Schultz for greater creativity. “Engineers need to unlock this creativity again, in particular when it comes to digital technology and data to solve challenges such as climate change at the scale required,” he said.

“Engineers are viewed as conservative and inflexible and they need to evolve. Innovation is absolutely crucial – we have to change and be seen to be flexible without compromising safety.”

Schultz’ comments were echoed by Arup global director for sustainable development, Dame Jo da Silva, Royal Haskoning DHV technical director for maritime in Vietnam, Ali Minhas, and ICE vice president and KMPG global head of infrastructure, Richard Threlfall, who joined the panel discussion following the final lecture and participated in earlier sessions.

da Silva said that she felt fortunate to have joined the construction industry in the 1980s when computing technology, which she described as a disruptor, created the opportunity for engineers like herself who were computer literate to be creative. “Now it is more about compliance,” she said. “However, digital technology has the potential to be a disruptor and gives me hope that we can unlock the power of the profession.”

She added that load and material factors used by the industry haven’t changed in over 30 years and said the sector was currently “radically over conservative” and urged civil engineers to review design assumptions rather than just following design codes.

Minhas said that civil engineering had become considered as commodity rather than a creative profession and questioned whether this change was driving a decline in popularity of civil engineering as a career path.

Threlfall added: “There is a need for the engineering community to reconnect with being an innovative rather than a process-led or standards-following industry.”

Key issues from around the world

2021 Brunel Lecturer Seth Schultz said there were too many issues discussed during the regional events to present them all at his final session, but he presented the key ones from each region.

East Asia – perception vs reality

“Despite China being a construction powerhouse and taking the lead in nuclear power, high speed rail, offsite manufacturing and data management, the focus of engineers in Europe and the Americas is on what they can teach people in China rather than what they could learn from them,” said Schultz.

He added that it was fascinating part of the world to begin the conversations with “how quickly norms and expectations have changed”. But he questioned whether perception had caught up with reality. “In the last 15 years, China has built more bridges and power stations than the rest of the world has combined over the last 40 years,” he said. “But yet we are still not taking lessons from China on speed, scale and transform of infrastructure systems to other parts of the world.”

Europe – repurposing

“The European event focused on the massive need to repurposing and re-training of engineers required to make up for the skills gap in the sector to tackle climate change,” said Schultz. “Priorities for skills included energy efficiency, renewable electricity, decarbonising industry and carbon sequestration with resilient infrastructure underpinning everything.

“da Silva was part of that discussion and made the point that 30 years ago, science was ahead of the design codes and engineers were at their best when they were pushing the boundaries.”

Middle East – skills and lack of policy focus

According to Schultz, the conversation in the Middle East centred around the urban infrastructure development underway there which he described as “some of the most amazing the world has ever seen”. However, the challenges in the region arise from engineering courses being too focused on technical skills and not enough on policy and environmental issues to equip engineers with the skills they need for the future. Schultz added that beyond academic training, some engineers in the region are often not exposed to a culture of policy outside of work. “Civil engineers understand the issues and solutions but a lot of the time they are not involved in the discussion,” he said.

Americas – whole life cost of infrastructure

“The conversation in the Americas focused on the increasing severity and economic losses from single natural hazard events, which now routinely reach the level of the gross domestic product of small island nations,” said Schultz. “This is not affordable.

“It was proposed during the discussion that the cost of rebuilding should be considered in upfront decision making about infrastructure construction, not just the initial capital outlay. Resilience and sustainability need to be central to every decision. We need to look at whole lifecycle costs to understand the value of resilience, as well as the cost.”

Africa – collaboration

“Massive collaboration is needed in Africa to fill the skills gap with an urgent need to train and retain engineers, especially to deal with the climate emergency,” explained Schultz. “Urbanisation and population growth is driving the need for infrastructure but there is not enough time for the educational pipeline to produce enough high quality engineers. They need the skills to build low carbon infrastructure within the African context and partnerships between local and international engineering firms will be required in order to increase skills across Africa.”

According to Schultz, the private sectors doubts about government capability to deliver infrastructure was discussed. He said that this damaged the willingness of private companies to invest training or hiring engineers in the region. “Weak client delivery management in the public sector, poor procurement and lack of appropriate regulatory frameworks for large scale private sector involvement in public infrastructure were fundamental problems and, if addressed, would lead to many other issues being resolved,” he concluded.

South Asia – climate mitigation and vulnerability

“The conversation in South Asia focused on regional vulnerability and the social implications,” said Schultz. “The cost of inaction is much higher than the cost of action, especially in a region such as South Asia with drought hit lands, monsoon season and topography. It is home to some of the most vulnerable countries when it comes to climate change.

“We need to get engineering knowledge back into the process of dealing with the crisis and tackle the challenges on multiple fronts. We need to allow engineers to be innovative and creative, while providing the right standards, policies and legislation. We need greater collaboration to do this and led Minhas to make his observations about moving engineering away from being a commodity to being a creative profession again.”

Australasia – sitting back and taking instruction

The importance of community involvement and speaking up were part of the conversation in Australasia and the need for engineers to communicate at all levels was highlighted.

One delegate said that engineers have created problems for themselves by sitting back and waiting for instruction and something to happen rather than leading the change. Another said that to tackle climate change, the change needed to fast, disruptive and engage the community.

This article was first published in New Civil Engineer, authored by Claire Smith, on 18 January 2022.