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Agitate, educate,organise

Engineers should agitate for change, stepping outside the profession to engage with society, delegates at the International Federation of Consulting Engineers annual conference heard last week.

The terms "engineer" and "revolutionary" are rarely used together by members of the general public unless they are talking about historic greats such as George Stephenson, Thomas Telford and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

But if the world is to respond to the challenges it faces, engineers must work on their image if their undoubted skills are to be used to help the world tackle the challenges it faces.

This was one of the main topics of discussion at last week's International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC) annual conference, which was held in Quebec, Canada.

Delegates discussed how to make society realise that engineers shape the modern world and possess the skills to promote a sustainability revolution.

"Society will not achieve its sustainability and development goals without engineers taking a leadership role," FIDIC president John Boyd told delegates.

To do that engineers must step outside their immediate sphere of influence to make the public realise how vital they are, conference keynote speaker, author and essayist Dr John Ralston Saul told delegates.

Saul is particularly known for his commentaries on the nature of individualism, citizenship and the public good, and on the failures of technocrat-led societies.

Highlighting the importance of engineers, he referred to the doubling of life expectancy between 1850 and 1920. Saul claimed this was largely down to the work of engineers which enabled people to live more healthy lives.

Engineers and doctors are at the cutting edge of ideas in defending living standards and social progress, said Saul.

But he criticised the profession for encouraging engineers to over-specialise.

"The problem of specialised professionals caught in a straight jacket of ethical specialisms has meant that your leadership has taken a back seat," he said.

He explained that engineers must act as citizens as well as behaving as highly trained professionals. "I'm looking for the engineers who doubled the life expectancy of people. I'm looking for citizens.

Some professions are more important than others and you engineers are in the top five professions and to have you out of the loop as citizens changing things is a big problem for society."

Saul chided his audience by adding: "Of course becoming the specialist is comforting, or intellectually lazy to be more accurate. You need to rewrite the definition of your profession to become again part of society.

"A return to ideas is needed. You need to be central to changing civilisation for the better.

Beware of the silo concept and of defining yourselves by the narrow confines of your professionalism."

This falling into "Silos", forgetting the engineer's place in society, begins at university, said Saul.
"Changing the nature of education is needed to avoid the silo mentality that has been built into so many courses and by definition, individuals," he said.

Universities needed a revolution to change their approach, he added. They must start developing more rounded citizens and in his view experienced engineers are ideally placed to lead that revolution.

"Society is not about the management of professions, who merely act as helpers to those that 'manage'", Saul said, "it's about engineers taking control of their future by leading change in the way that issues are addressed in the education system."

Saul spoke of the enabling role of engineers in leading "a new humanism" that can transform the world and the way it addresses the challenges it faces.

Former Quebec premier Pierre-Marc Johnson told delegates that clients everywhere must make the most of engineers' abilities by basing decisions on quality, not cost.

"We need much more emphasis on expertise and experience in the procurement of public infrastructures, said Johnson.

"If you'd hurt your arm and needed an operation, you would not put that operation out to tender amongst a bunch of surgeons. You'd go for quality and experience every time.

We need to legislate to ensure that public procurement is more about quality and less about cost.

FIDiC 2009 in London

From September 13-16 2009 the Association for Consultancy & Engineering (ACE) will host the annual FIDIC conference in London.

The theme of the 2009 conference will be "Delivering Sustainable Solutions to Global Challenges".

"We really want to see the engineer in solving the big issues," an ACE spokesman told NCE.

"We are trying to look beyond what engineers do, looking at large themes like the global economy but then looking at how that impacts on things like infrastructure funding."

Issues to be explored will include: private sector procurement versus public sector procurement - what works, when and where; global resources, and raising the awareness that engineers can provide the solutions for dealing with shortages.

For the first time, FIDIC will also launch a"State of the World" report at the conference.

It will identify "hotspots" in countries and sectors where the combined challenges of climate change and resource shortages are likely to be most acute.

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