NCE at 50 | How predictions from 25 years ago stood the test of time

NCE’s 25th anniversary supplement made predictions for what the world
of civil engineering would look like in 2022 – how did those forecasts hold up?

In NCE’s 8 May 1997 issue, the news team reported that the base slab pour at Westminster station on the Jubilee Line Extension had been completed, another plan for the Hong Kong to Macau bridge had been put forward, and a second rail link to Heathrow from St Pancras had been proposed. 

Twenty five years later the Jubilee Line Extension has been open for 23 years, the Hong Kong to Macau bridge was completed four years ago but Heathrow’s rail link to St Pancras has failed to materialise.

That issue was accompanied by NCE’s 25th anniversary supplement, which, as well as looking back over the magazine’s past, looked at what the future held for civil engineers over the following 25 years. Here we take a look at its predictions for 2022, whether they stood the test of time or whether we might need another 25 years – or more – to fully realise them.


In 1997, then technical editor Dave Parker wrote that the really modern building of 2022 will draw more electricity from its environment than from the National Grid. He said continuing water shortages would force developers to position each new building on a massive underground artificial water store. These would collect rainwater and untreated water from the building’s plumbing and be topped up with water during the winter. They would also act as heat sinks for solar energy in the summer.

Did NCE’s prediction in 1997 for 2022 come to pass?

There was also a prediction that drinking water would be purified by consumers as required. Buro Happold’s then managing partner Padraic Kelly predicted that in the new megacities of this century, the 19th century concept of distributing clean water – and piping away sewage – would be abandoned. At best untreated water would be delivered and the responsibility for purification and the treatment of waste would rest with the customer.

So buildings that recycle water and produce valuable high-grade fertiliser from the sewage to boot were predicted to become the norm.

While buildings may not have become as self sufficient as expected in the last 25 years, solar panels, ground source heat pumps and surface water run off attenuation for buildings is becoming more mainstream. By the time NCE reaches its 100th anniversary we will perhaps be closer to achieving the predictions made in 1997.

However, with London’s new Tideway super sewer expected to open in 2025 with a 120 year design life it does not appear that the water industry anticipates that buildings will be managing their own waste for some time to come. 


Parker also made predictions about construction materials in 1997. He said designers in 2022 would be working with materials which will include what, at first sight, might appear to be much the same as today: steel, concrete, timber, aluminium, glass and so on, but with some important differences. 

He predicted that cementitious binder would be blended to customer-specific requirements using a wide range of ingredients, many of them processed waste. In the search for greater durability and efficiency, characteristic strengths were expected to keep rising, until C100 concrete is as common on site in 2022 as C25 was in 1997. 

Foaming, fibre and non-ferrous reinforcement, artificial and recycled aggregates, will all become routine ways of tailoring structural concrete to specific end uses, wrote Parker. Key elements will contain optical fibres and microcapsules of their curing resin to monitor stresses and seal any cracks that develop he said. As production costs fall, synthetic materials like heat-resistant, strong aromatic polyamides will be used routinely for post-tensioning and cable staying alike.

Parker also predicted that timber in its raw form could well be entirely homegrown in the future. Fast growing genetically modified eucalyptus could replace Canadian spruces in the UK forests, especially if climate change continued unchecked. He said timber would increasingly be part of composite elements, laminated with metals and carbon fibres, reinforcing thermoplastics and even concretes.

There was also a prediction that drinking water would be purified by consumers as required

The increasing use of glass as a structural material is still seen as very much architect-driven. Kelly said this perception should have changed in the period between 1997 and 2022. 

“It’s durable, self-cleaning means you could in theory design a building in which every element would have the same life expectancy,” he explained. 

“The problem at the moment is we still don’t have the jointing materials that last as long.”

Long life, factory applied intumescent fire protection was also predicted to become standard on structural steelwork. Composite structures using a wide range of materials would be the norm with designers no longer wedded to simplistic steel, concrete or masonry solutions. It was also expected that fire engineering, environmental impact analysis and whole life costing would be added to the design equation.

The reality is that recycled materials are becoming widely used along with waste materials in a bid to reduce embodied carbon. These include ground granulated blast furnace slag, a byproduct of iron and steel production which is now a common addition to concrete to reduce the volume of Ordinary Portland Cement content. 

Technical challenges

But there are still challenges in terms of technical specification and client acceptance concerning use of what are still seen as non-conventional building materials.

Nonetheless, work is underway to trial materials like graphene in concrete and asphalt to increase the strength of a material, reduce the need for reinforcement and to cut its thickness. National Highways is undertaking a trial using such asphalt on the A1 in Northumberland, while the first graphene enhanced concrete slab was cast in 2021 by construction firm Nationwide Engineering for a new gym at Amesbury’s Solstice Park for military veterans.

Whole lifecycle costs are also becoming more widely discussed but are not applied to all projects yet and there is still a strong focus on initial construction cost in 2022.

Construction equipment

Judith Cruickshank, who was NCE International editor in 1997, wrote about construction equipment for the 25th anniversary special. She said research and development departments had been investigating the potential for robotics, global positioning systems (GPS) and data communication methods for many years. But she said equipment manufacturers live in a commercial world and must wait until the market shows signs of being able to use their latest brainchild before putting it into production.

Cruickshank wrote that the other problem lay in making full use of the data, but said it was not hard to see a time when an operator will receive an instruction from a maintenance engineer 1,000km away telling them to check the fuel level.

Will there still be an operator? Almost certainly she predicted. She said the expectation was that robotically controlled machines would only come into their own in hazardous situations. 

One of the changes that was not predicted in 1997 was the drive to reduce emissions from construction equipment

For more day-to-day applications, she wrote that robotics were likely to be used on repetitive applications, such as raising and lowering dozer blades, or taking over part of a digging cycle.

Global positioning systems (GPS) also have huge potential in all kinds of civil engineering applications, Nottingham University professor Vidal Ashkenazi told NCE. He predicted that GPS would be used for the operation and guidance of robotic machinery, graders, excavators, compactors and tower cranes. 

Highways, railway and airport runway maintenance will involve the storage and analysis of periodically collected data. GPS, said Ashkenazi, will be used for precise geo-referencing and time tagging of this data. In addition it can be used for the periodic monitoring of large structures such as earth dams and reservoirs. He said this will be extended to include the real time monitoring of long suspension bridges, tall buildings and nuclear power stations. 

More on the intelligent infrastructure he predicted later.

Machine control is definitely here in 2022 and has gone from the simple automation of some digging cycles that Cruickshank predicted to the automation of whole fleets. National Highways’ A14 improvement scheme between Cambridge and Huntingdon trialled the first autonomous dump truck in England in 2019. 

Autonomous dump trucks were used on the A14 upgrade

The truck was programmed remotely to follow a predetermined route and had the capability to detect and avoid obstacles, such as other vehicles, along the route. At the time of testing National Highways predicted that autonomous dump trucks would be in full operation in the UK by this year.

One of the changes that was not predicted in 1997 was the drive to reduce emissions from construction equipment which has been using ever advanced diesel over the last 20 years. Despite these advances there is now a push to use electrically powered equipment to reduce carbon emissions further and eliminate noxious exhaust fumes from construction sites. 

In 2022, these alternatively powered machines can match their diesel equivalents in terms of power and production but are still costly – that will have to change well before NCE’s 75th anniversary in 2047 if the UK is to hit its 2050 carbon net zero promise.

Building Information Modelling

Lisa Russell, who was NCE’s features editor in 1997, considered how technology might change the way we design, plan and deliver construction projects by 2022.

She wrote that there was already a trend towards all the parties in a project sharing information, with the move towards common databases. In 1997 3D virtual reality modelling techniques not only allowed clients to see what was being built, they meant that a structure could, in effect, be prototyped long before the first hole was dug. This was expected to soon lead to projects where virtually every move had been rehearsed and refined before work on site began. 

Sharing information changes the way a project operates, said Bovis head of advanced systems Ray Crotty. 

Russell predicted that this technology would be available in the early 2000s but she added in terms of uptake it would take longer.

Accelerating change

“But if people think they can drift, they are absolutely wrong,” said Crotty. He said the pace of change was accelerating and “if firms don’t start looking at IT now they will find it difficult to catch up”.

While what Russell described in 1997 was not named as building information modelling (BIM) or Common Data Environments (CDE), Crotty certainly seemed to be anticipating these technologies. Today BIM is commonplace on major projects and acts as a database to store information as well as present a model of a structure being built. In combination with CDE it does allow projects to digitally rehearse construction before moving onto site. CDE is also empowering the data sharing Russell anticipated. 

While some contractors are fully utilising the potential, not every project is yet carried out this way although that is likely to change in the next few decades.

The use of digital twins where a built infrastructure asset has a digital replica that is used to help plan, design, build and then operate an asset is gaining ground in 2022. It is likely to be the norm before NCE’s 75th anniversary. 

Intelligent Infrastructure

The 25th anniversary supplement also forecast that the infrastructure we design and use in 2022 would have added intelligence.

Parker wrote that self-monitoring, self-policing bridges were almost a reality in 1997. It was anticipated that the structures would weigh approaching traffic, calculate the stresses such traffic will produce, check that the bridge is still capable of accepting such stresses and switch on red traffic lights if the answer is negative. 

In earthquake zones a bridge could be fitted with solar powered energy stores and actuators, giving it the power to actively resist dangerous oscillations.

It was predicted that ‘just about everything will be intelligent’ by 2022

Maintenance robots were also expected to lurk inside a bridge’s weather shielding, poised to scuttle into action whenever a street light failed or a barrier was damaged. And when eventually the bridge decided it was past economic repair, it would order its own replacement, which, like the original, would usually be light enough to be lifted into place during a single night-time possession.

It was predicted that “just about everything will be intelligent” by 2022.

While great advances have been made in adding sensors to infrastructure, we are not yet at the stage where bridges are self-policing, let alone self-replacing. We have still to solve the challenge of over-height vehicles hitting low bridges in 2022 demonstrating the catch up needed. 

But a lot of work is underway to use the sensors already deployed to gather data which can improve understanding of in-use stresses within structures. As a result there should be rapid change in the next decade when it comes to intelligent infrastructure.


In 1997 NCE reported that forward thinking civil engineers agreed that the next generation would live in a world where instant mobile communications and access to information would be taken for granted. 

“We are working towards a technological infrastructure that fits in people’s lives as unobtrusively as electricity or running water,” said Duska Rosenberg of Brunel’s University’s Centre for Research in Information Environments.

Ove Arup & Partners associate Tom Fernando added: “Wherever you are it will be quite easy to send back a video of what you are looking at and get the comments back straightaway.”

It was also predicted that there will be no need to lug a laptop around or go back to the main site office to check on data. 

The Google Glass displays information in front of the eye

The computer screen could be taken from your pocket and unfolded, or incorporated into a pair of glasses.

If even this strikes you as too cumbersome, BT futurologist Ian Pearson said you could always opt for active contact lenses which were expected to be available by about 2010. These could display information on your eye, even when closed, he said.

Keyboards were also expected to be increasingly unnecessary. Why type when you can speak your commands into a little badge – or even just think them? 

It is hard to imagine a time without mobile phones as we know them today – text messages were rare in 1997 and the cost of using a mobile phone was high. Working on site usually meant having a stack of 10p coins to call the office from a telephone box once a day if you were lucky.

3G and then 5G

The advent of 3G networks and now 5G, Wi-Fi and smart phones has revolutionised the way the industry communicates. Gone are the days of 1997 when posting letters and handwriting reports for secretaries to write up was the norm. Emailing and video calls, have transformed the way we communicate in business, not to mention social media, 

In terms of smart glasses, Microsoft has launched the HoloLens and there was also Google Glass but they are not commonly used on site – or anywhere in daily life – just now.

The 1997 anniversary supplement also made some forecasts about remote working and virtual conferences.

“The need to come to the same physical location will be less and less,” Fernando said. 

Trust and human nature

But human nature still plays a part. “People need to build up trust,” said Rosenberg, and this only really happens when they meet.

The 1997 article also predicted that the Internet will play a part in increasing the collaboration between specialists. Fernando said that people will be more aware of what others are doing, especially through the use of “virtual conferences”.

This has certainly proved to be the case and many people were forced to work remotely for two years during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Even as late as 2019, few would have predicted the sharp change in working patterns that the pandemic triggered in March 2020. While many people now hybrid work – a few days in the office and a few days at home – there is still a need to be on site in construction and there is a firm desire for face to face meetings where possible.


In 1997, ICE News editor Gareth Gardner considered how education and training might change between 1997 and 2022. He said while it was difficult to predict the details, experts were predicting a bright picture for civil engineers in 2022.

Gardner’s article stated that if the civil engineer of 2022 was to lead projects and have public and political influence, they would have to be “Renaissance people” equipped with a vast range of abilities. 

To deliver this it was expected that civil engineering courses would get broader and rely much more heavily on information technology. 

Training would have to be tougher with engineers expected to prove their competence continually even after professional review.

Sadly it took the fatal Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 to drive a focus on competency and rigorous updating of skills

The range of subjects on offer in 2022 could actually force students to specialise sooner rather than later.
But it was anticipated that students studying civil engineering in 2022 would be able to download entire courses from their university. 

Remote learning

It was expected that lectures would no longer need to be delivered in person. Either the notes – or footage of the lectures – would be available on computer, to be accessed anytime.

The broadening of skills needed by civil engineers today is evident in the need to consider environmental issues and to have full understanding of the carbon cost of projects.

Sadly it took the fatal Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 to drive a focus on competency and rigorous updating of skills throughout an engineer’s career. In 2022 the ICE mandated continuing professional development with auditing for all members.

While the pandemic pushed many students to remote lectures, most are now back in lecture theatres and technical labs and seem set to stay there.

NCE: the magazine

Predictions were also made about the fate of NCE itself in 2022. The 1997 anniversary issue stated that changes for the magazine in the next 25 years were likely to be even greater than for the profession itself. But who could even guess what these might be?

 “Today [in 1997] the production process for NCE requires pages to be transmitted electronically. It would only be a relatively tiny step to send them to readers electronically, perhaps in time by wireless connection.”

And that prediction did come to pass – in 2022 only 23,000 readers receive a paper copy of NCE each month, while more than 26,000 receive it digitally.

The electronic devices we use today and the Internet, which have helped power the digital edition of NCE, have also revolutionised the way the magazine delivers its content. While the print – or digital – issue is now monthly, the magazine’s website and daily newsletters mean NCE has become a daily news service.

Perhaps by the time NCE is 75, you will be reading the news on your active contact lenses, so you will not even need to open your eyes to learn about the latest developments in civil engineering. Who knows?

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One comment

  1. This was a fascinating read, in learning how much has changed, and how much has stayed the same, in the last 25 years. All predictions of the future are based on contemporary knowledge, trends and zeitgeist, so we will never get the future completely right.
    It remains to be seen how much more will change, and how much will not, in the next 25 years.

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