Panellists from Australia and New Zealand discussed collaboration, speaking out, and diversity during the final leg of the virtual Brunel lecture series.
Collaboration with a “big C” is the key to dealing with climate change, according Seth Schultz, keynote speaker of the Brunel lecture series.
Schultz, who has been delivering his lecture about climate change virtually from around the world, has repeatedly stressed the need for better collaboration, both within the engineering community, and with external organisations.
“Engineers are terrible at collaborating. There’s this thought process that engineering companies are all competing with each other. But there’s a difference between “little c” collaboration and “big c” collaboration.
The way Schultz sees it, there are two different types of collaboration. Engineers do lots of “little c” collaboration, such as joint ventures and bids for projects. But “big c” collaboration is where engineers create strategies to “grow the pie” together.
“Engineering companies fight for a slice of the pie. And what I think has been completely missed is that that pie is going to grow three-fold in the next decade. There literally aren’t enough engineers to do the work and we’re squabbling with each other for competitive opportunities?” he said
The irony is that in the past 15 years, there has been greater consolidation of engineering companies than at any point in the past 200 years, Schultz said.
“We’re constantly changing staff and intellectual property and those experiences across firms and consolidating them but we’re still competing with each other,” he said.
Schultz gave the example of The Resilience Shift, a global initiative focused on making the world safer through resilient infrastructure. The organisation was set up with a $10 million grant from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, but is hosted by global engineering company Arup.
“Arup put their experience and intellectual property from across the world into the development of this programme. People asked what on earth a big global engineering company was doing hosting an non-government organisation (NGO) on this topic, and thought they were giving away all the trade secrets, but that is very much the basis of The Resilience Shift,” he said.
However, he added that he had seen an increasing trend for engineering companies to collaborate with universities or NGOs, or bring different skill sets together on a research model.
Engineers need to go out and communicate with communities
These sentiments were echoed by Robert White, a fellow of both the ICE and Engineering New Zealand, and a technical director in GHD’s New Zealand water team. He believed that engineers need to communicate at all levels, giving the example of New Zealand’s current proposals for water reform, which will see 67 companies reduced to four.
Politicians have been interviewed in the media about this, but water engineers have not spoken out. “Those working for counsels need to support their political masters, the consultants and contracting sectors don’t want to upset their clients. So we leave it to the politicians. There’s a scarcity of engineers, so we’re back to square one, heads down doing the best we can with what resources were given and taking the blame,” he said.
Engineers have created a problem by “sitting back and taking instruction and waiting for something to happen”, according to White. “We have to get away from our desk, talk to communities and politicians and start leading the change,” he said.
Change needs to be ‘fast and disruptive’
Ruth Bullen, project manager and owner of Bullen Management, has had a lot of experience engaging with communities in her post-earthquake rebuild work of Christchurch pipes and roads and the devastated landscape, road and rail of the Kaikoura region.
To tackle climate change, change needs to be “fast and disruptive”, she said.
Community involvement is key, Bullen said.
“What I’ve seen from my experience of these disaster recovery programs here is that we can when we have the urgency of infrastructure being damaged and a distressed community there is nothing like to force a change to our normal systems of how we do things,” she said.
Involving everyone in the process engendered high levels of collaboration and trust, with those affected by the earthquakes coming up with the solutions, she said.
The rebuild work after the Kaikoura earthquake in New Zealand required strong community engagement and collaboration.
Australia is ‘missing opportunities’
Melinda Lutton, regional general manager and principal environmental engineer at Water Technology in South Australia, said that Australia was missing opportunities in sourcing engineers to fill the skills gap.
Only 20% of engineering graduates in the country are women, and only 0.5% are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, despite making up 2.5% of the workforce.
“Having engineers with other perspectives will open our eyes to different knowledge systems that will increase the diversity decisions in major projects,” she said.
This article was first published by ICE. With thanks to Catherine Early.