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40th anniversary special: A world of possibilities?

Tunnels under the Atlantic, High Speed 5 and Apple in charge of the world – all of which are possibilities for the next 40 years as far as civil engineers are concerned.

While the headline figures from NCE’s 40th birthday survey show that engineers fear water shortages and economic crises will blight the horizon, a closer look reveals a few who dare to dream big about what the future might hold.

Some 123 people responded to our survey asking civil engineers what their world will look like in another 40 years’ time. One of the emerging themes from a number of the answers was a sense that the world will shrink further and that many will, by 2052, have fully embraced the fact that they live in a global village.

Only 41% of people imagine that if they were at the same point in their career in 40 years they would be working in the UK, whereas almost half of that number, 20%, said that they would imagine that their jobs would be relocating them to the current emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China (Bric). South East Asia, Africa and Australia/New Zealand seem as attractive as one another with 7%, 8% and 9% respectively imagining their lives there rendering North America and the Middle East old news, with these regions only pulling in 3% and 4% of votes.

Of course, geography could be rendered irrelevant if one of the predictions becomes reality — 31% believe that civil engineers will mostly conduct their work via hologram-led virtual meetings. Even the more cautious 28% who said it would instead be via Skype or other video communication technologies, and 24% who opted for email and digital data exchange means that the vast majority of people seem convinced that electronic forms of working will prevail. Only 18% remain committed to the idea that most of their work will be conducted face to face.

With the great change predicted in the way we work, it may be surprising to see that there’s little movement in how we expect to use cars in 2052, except perhaps to say that we are committed to our love for automobiles.

Some 46% of respondents believe that the car will be the most popular form of transport, beating trains with only 25% and cycling with just 11%, and the majority, 84%, also believe that we will own one or two cars. Some 11% believed that people will have typically rejected ownership of cars in 40 years.

The other factor which seems to be behind the dedication to the car is that there are only 10% who believe it will still be powered by petrol by then — 37% reckon electricity will be the power source, 28% think it will be a hybrid and 21% backed hydrogen.

This optimistic view of the future carbon footprint of cars is aided by the belief of nearly half of all respondents, 47%, that nuclear plants will provide our energy, backed up by 25% putting their faith in solar power —rather more than the 5% who believe wind power will be our primary source, despite being vaunted by the government.

Confidence in reducing greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere waned. One in five of the 106 respondents to the question how many carbon capture and storage facilities would the UK have felt that government attempts to kick start this technology would have failed and there would be no such plants. However, over half felt there would be some success with somewhere between one and 10 plants operating. Somewhat surprisingly, given the technology is yet to be proven on a large industrial scale, 5% had enough faith to say there would be more than 1,000 built.

Just 37% of the overall 123 respondents believe that come 2052 most building materials will be carbon-free, not showing much faith in research and development, while the nays just had it when it came to asking whether the government would have met targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80% of 1990 levels by 2050 — 54% thought not.

Some of the most impressive delusions of grandeur were revealed in the answers to a series of questions about the length, depth and height of our attention grabbing structures in 40 years’ time.

The vast majority were convinced that we would see new holders of the tallest building tag — 87% believed that come 2052 there would be buildings taller than the 828m tall Burj Khalifa, which is perhaps realistic. More than a third are ambitious enough to believe that the vision for a mile high tower, made popular by architect Frank Lloyd Wright over half a century ago, would be realised. The most ambitious of all was the proposal that buildings could be as tall as 50km, although it is tempting to question whether this was a typographic error.

On tunnels, opinion was more divided. One in five felt that it would be plausible to build longer than the current longest tunnel title holder, the 155km long Thirlmere Aqueduct. A handful of people reckoned on 15,000km long tunnels or tunnelled connections across the Pacific, Atlantic or Mediterranean in response to this question. However, asked separately whether a US/UK tunnel would be built in 40 years, an overwhelming 89% could not see it happening.

When it comes to the length of bridges, many felt we had already reached our limits with the 164.8km long Danyang Kinshan bridge — only 15% went longer, although one had enough belief to go so far as saying they imagine a 1,000km long bridge being realised by 2052.

Closer to home, proposing changes to transport infrastructure yielded a good deal of ambition too. Of the 123 respondents, 22% felt that Heathrow may have closed by then, but far more — 67% — believe it will have expanded. One in five foresee a six runway mega airport.

Cross-London links are also seen as likely to expand, with 71% believing there will not just be one Crossrail but two, three or even four.

And despite its recent struggles to create convincing benefit cost ratios, high speed rail fared well, with 88% expecting High Speed 2 to be in operation. An optimistic 63% expect to see High Speed 3, 41% High Speed 4 and 20% High Speed 5.

Technology is certainly going to play a bigger role in our lives; 86% of respondents imagine that the print version of NCE will no longer exist in 2052. Whatever the future holds, look out for NCE’s analysis via a digital/holographic/iPad report to be published on our 80th birthday.


Readers' comments (1)

  • I disagree with some of the figures in that to include the whole of the Thirlmere Aqueduct is misleading. The bulk of the aqueduct is cut and cover ie a covered canal and no more a tunnel than a pipeline. The true tunnel is under Dunmel Raise and is 3 miles long. The longest real tunnel is the Delaware Aqueduct at 137km.
    The Danyang Kinshan Bridge has a standard span of 80m whereas the world,s longest span is 1,991m. However this shows that it would be easily feasible to bridge the Bering Straights which is only 80km but such route joining Asia and America would pass through very low populated areas on both sides for an enormous distance.

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