The Global Engineering Congress (GEC) is an unmissable opportunity for civil engineering to leave a lasting legacy. As part of a wider statement of intent, which I hope all members and attendees will put their names to, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) has set out its commitment to “provide leadership and advocacy, nurture collaboration; build capacities, knowledge and skills; and share our stories”.
This last bit really excites me. There’s going to be a lot of story sharing at the GEC. Friends and colleagues will meet and discuss past projects, current ideas and make bold predictions for tomorrow. But, I wonder… How much of this will be made accessible to the world at large?
If we’re honest as a sector, we’re not always the most rounded communicators. Yes, we know how to speak peer-to-peer. We get each other just fine. It’s explaining ourselves to a wider audience that proves a challenge. Or rather, we don’t always recognise the value in capturing the imagination of those people who are directly impacted by our work.
This disconnect is a costly mistake, in my opinion. The closer we can interact with end users, the more insight we’ll get back in return. With clients becoming increasingly concerned about the customer experience in today’s digital economy, the incentive to open clear lines of communication becomes business critical. With information being the lifeblood of smart infrastructure, it’s something of an own goal to ignore it.
The more in touch we become with the man, woman or child on the street, the more relevant the Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) will prove for guiding future projects. The ICE has set out five top-priority SDGs: 6 (Clean water & Sanitation), 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), 9 (Industry Innovation & Infrastructure), 11 (Sustainable Cities & Communities) and 13 (Climate Action). Absolutely, we need to own these five, celebrating any successes and sharing the setbacks. Yet we ignore the other 12 at our peril, as they matter immensely to our clients’ ultimate customers.
As a small social experiment, I asked several colleagues to pick out the SDGs that were most important to their role within the company. Then I asked them to select those that they cared about most as an individual. You guessed it: the two were not fully aligned. Of course, this wasn’t deeply scientific, but it begs the question: why should they be different? Surely the answer can’t be: “because we’re engineers”. Try it yourself, if you dare! Finding fresh ways to incorporate our personal SDGs such as combatting poverty, injustice or inequality into an infrastructure project – wouldn’t that be a story worth telling?
There are social, economic and environmental reasons to be more open about what we do. May I add a fourth dimension? Communication is good for the spirit too! We must never stop celebrating the wonder of engineering. That leap of faith is at the heart of every brave decision or act of altruism that’s needed to combat the challenges of rapid population growth, hyper urbanisation, water and food shortage and climate change. In this era of extraordinary flux, engineers have the ability to help people gain a sense of empowerment and freedom that they can change their own path themselves. That is truly wonderful.
Sharing our stories with children is a good place to start. It gives projects a simplicity that can be lost in the formulas, reports and presentation graphs. When you see the world through their eyes – as anyone who has recently spoken to a nine-year-old about plastic will know – the problems of the human race and our planet are made very simple. And so are the solutions. Don’t be selfish. Work together. Share.
Using the GEC as a springboard, I hope we will all find ways to tell the story of the lives that have been improved through civil engineering, and to raise awareness around the challenges that still need to be addressed. You’ll see our legacy pledge circulating through the conference. Please do add your name to the growing list of signatures.