NCE at 50 | The ICE view

Issues facing members of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the next 50 years go beyond the technical to include ethical and social considerations. 

In 1972, the Institution of Civil Engineers’ (ICE) membership stood at just over 45,000 and then president George Ambler Wilson’s theme for his year in office was defining what European Union (EU) membership would mean for UK civil engineers. 

Half a century later, the ICE’s membership has more than doubled to 95,000 and the UK has joined and left the EU. Much has changed in the 50 years since NCE was launched. And, ICE director general Nick Baveystock believes that the changes to come in the next 50 years will be bigger still.

What the future holds

Looking at what the future holds for civil engineering and for members of the ICE has very much been the focus for Baveystock since he took on his current role in 2011. 

The ICE’s 200th anniversary in 2018 created a real focus point, he says.

“There were two real successes in our 200th anniversary celebrations,” he says. “Through the Global Engineering Congress every engineering institution in the world was invited to join us and this created some very valuable discussions, which helped embed the need to adopt and use the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) in everything we do as an institution
and as an industry. 

“The other success story was that we stepped out to be more public facing and created a programme, right around the world, with a very focused message about why the civil engineering industry does what it does. We worked hard to use language that the public understood and learning to do that well is really important for engineers.”

We are already talking extensively about carbon and climate change, but another issue which is not yet talked about enough is population growth

While Baveystock is clearly proud of the anniversary and the way it was marked, he believes the ICE members must carefully contemplate the future in which they will work.

Considering the challenges to come, Baveystock believes that these will be more global than in the past and will call on engineers to consider ethics alongside engineering capability more than ever before.

“Going forward there are a number of issues we need to wrestle with,” he says. “We are already talking extensively about carbon and climate change, but another issue which is not yet talked about enough is population growth. 

“Just in the UK we are estimated to move from a population of 65M people to 72.5M by 2050. This growth will only make it harder to meet the carbon net zero challenge before you even consider where they will all live. If they all move to the already overpopulated South East, then there will be real resource poverty. This is why I think genuinely rebalancing the economy is hugely important for infrastructure planners.”

Population growth

This predicted population growth is not just expected in the UK – it is happening globally with the Earth’s current population of 7.8bn anticipated to increase to 10bn by 2050. The burden this places on infrastructure and natural resources is why Baveystock believes civil engineers will have to think beyond national boundaries and consider matters more globally in the future.

“This is why the UN SDGs are so important,” he adds. “If people do not have social and economic opportunity because their existing infrastructure doesn’t give them that, then they will go in search of it somewhere else. Unless we are clever, we are going to have a real strain placed on our natural resources as population grows along with urbanisation.”

As an example, Baveystock points to the existing water supply tensions that are already evident between nations.

 “Building of dams in one country to improve prosperity, may reduce water flow into another country and reduce prosperity there,” he says. 

“The broader profession – and in that I include politicians and decision makers – needs to be thinking this through harder than it currently does. We need to be thinking this through in terms of what our ethical duty is.

Economic opportunity

“We need to be looking at what infrastructure is needed now to give everyone economic opportunity. It is no good considering this in 20 years’ time – we need to consider the greater good in what we do today.”

It is clear that Baveystock believes that we will only make our work harder in the future if we do not take the time to consider these issues now.

“If there is no social or economic opportunity in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, and the people there move to a country that cannot cope with that scale of migration, then it is probably worth that second country making an infrastructure investment in Sub-Saharan Africa to create social and economic opportunity,” he explains. “It is a difficult issue to address but we have got to look at the real effects of what is happening – our work must be more about the human race, rather than country borders in the future.”

We have got to look at the real effects of what is happening – our work must be more about the human race, rather than country borders in the future

This change in focus means that over the next 50 years and beyond, civil engineers will need new skills compared to those who started out in the industry when NCE was launched 50 years ago. 

This is where Baveystock sees the role of the ICE in terms of supporting the industry and guiding it to ensure those skills are in place is critical.

“When I joined the profession slide rules, French curves and sharp pencils were important to becoming trained as a civil engineer,” explains Baveystock. “You didn’t have to worry about anything else. I may have had one module on sustainability but no more than that.

Engineering has changed

“Engineering – not just civil engineering but the whole engineering profession – has changed. We can either look back at the past with rose tinted spectacles or we can live in the real world and decide what our role is in society and act on that.”

Fully embracing that role to benefit society over the next 50 years will involve understanding and working with big ethical challenges, according to Baveystock. It will also involve ensuring the industry is competent to address these challenges, alongside technical ones.

“Unless we understand the social challenges, we won’t understand the engineering challenges either,” he adds. Nonetheless, it is clear that Baveystock is determined for the ICE and NCE to be at the forefront on the tasks ahead. 

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