Engineers need to be more creative to tackle the climate crisis

The penultimate leg of the touring Brunel International Lecture Series took place virtually in South East Asia this week, where panellists discussed how increased creativity and collaboration was needed to tackle climate change.

Engineering needs to become more of a creative profession, not just a “commodity”, according to panellists during the South East (SE) Asia leg of the Brunel lecture tour.

Ali Minhas, ICE country representative for Vietnam and technical director for maritime at RHDHV, spoke of the need for the sector to become more involved in creating solutions, rather than problems. He pointed to Vietnam, which has risen very quickly from one of the poorest countries in the region to a middle-income country.

But this rapid development has come at a cost, and the impact of infrastructure projects could be seen already in increased flooding, pollution and traffic. Vietnam has emerged as the fastest growing potential greenhouse gas emitter in the world, growing about 5% annually, he says.

“How often do we think beyond the application of code and the need to secure the project? I would say, not very often, or at all. For this reason, today’s engineering is largely considered as a commodity, and not a creative profession,” Minhas says.

Vietnam has grown rapidly recently, and the impact of infrastructure has led to increased flooding, pollution and traffic. Image credit: Peter Nguyen/Unsplash

An ‘off-putting’ perception

His views were echoed by Gandhi Suppiah, chair of ICE Malaysia, head of transportation for SE Asia at TSA Management. The perception that engineering was not creative was putting students off studying the subject, he said.

In the 20 years he had been an engineer, Suppiah said he had witnessed engineering have both good and bad impacts. While projects he had worked on had connected communities and improved people’s quality of life, they had also been responsible for “embedding a huge amount of concrete and steel”, which has resulted in the climate crisis we now face.

“We’ve been debating climate change for some time, but have kept adding more and more concrete and steel. We are the co-creators of this problem, I’m sure we are smart enough that we can be co-designers in limiting the impact,” he said.

Increased collaboration was needed, rather than it just occurring on an ad-hoc basis, he said. Engineers should get involved at the decision-making stage of a project, rather than just the construction phase. “This early involvement is crucial to ensure the current decisions are taken by solutions that are more climate friendly and resilient,” Suppiah added.

The cultural barriers

But according to Sybil Tan, director of infrastructure advisory, asset management and Infratech at PwC Singapore, collaboration was not yet really part of the culture in SE Asia. The structure of the sector was very traditional, with investors and infrastructure owners making the decisions, while architects, engineers and operations and maintenance teams had no say in what is built or how it is built.

Tan recalled how she left her previous role as a project manager for this reason, and moved to advising on infrastructure, since she saw more potential to influence the outcomes of projects by getting it right from the start.

“The question now is, can we change the mindset of engineers so that they ‘speak up and out’, and influence things rather than we’ll just take what people have told us, and build only what we can within the boundaries of the guides and the materials that we have got?” she asked.

Collaboration is essential

Collaboration is a central theme of the 13th Brunel International Lecture (BIL). Lecturer Seth Schultz has urged engineers to become more involved in policymaking, and work with other sectors, and less competitive with each other.

Schultz gave his opening lecture on 2 December 2020 and has been on a global tour, taking in seven stops around the world, presenting 21st Century Leadership is Partnership: How a Coalition of the World’s Engineers Can Change the World. Regional lectures include a bespoke version of the opening lecture with more time allocated for discussion between Schultz and key industry leaders.

Responding to the comments from the panellists, Schultz said: “It’s not all engineers’ fault, it’s part of how the engineering community is incentivised. We’re stuck in legal paralysis by over-engineering and using more than we need to, to backup the processes for which we’re held accountable.”

He agreed with Tan’s strategy of engineers moving up the supply chain to change procurement practices rather than just responding to what they are asked to do. “We need to change the engineering dynamic that we’re just a commodity,” he said.

Book now for the next lecture on 27 October for Australasia.

This article was first published by ICE. With thanks to Catherine Early.