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Be adventurous: fly the flag for engineering

Letters

As Sir Ranulph Fiennes, 'the world's greatest living explorer' pointed out in his speech at the ICE's annual dinner last week, to be successful, you have do something different and offer something unique. Civil engineers would do well to follow this advice.

In Sir Ranulph's case, he seeks out the routes that have never been walked, terrain that has never been traversed, and pushes his body further than it has been pushed before - often at great cost to his own health, it seems.

But his business, like most others, is market driven. No matter how difficult or radical a proposed trip might be, making it a reality relies on raising sponsorship cash.

So along with conceiving, planning and executing these often crazy trips, the modern adventurer's priority is to service the needs of his financial backers. This means planting the first flag on the summit and giving the client a value-formoney return on its investment.

If you cannot sell the story and generate the media exposure sponsors demand then forget it.

Civil engineering projects are similar in many ways to Sir Ranulph's adventures. Both require years of meticulous planning.

Both are usually a human struggle against the forces of nature.

Both are also difficult and costly and can take a long time to complete. And there is no doubt civil engineering projects are unique, exciting and awe-inspiring.

However, I fear that, despite having a wealth of raw material around us, the civil engineering profession too often fails to capitalise on the opportunity these projects offer. If we were adventurers we would be stuck at home having failed to interest sponsors.

For whether it is brand new pieces of infrastructure or ongoing maintenance, civils projects must compete for funding not just with other projects but also the nation's many other vital needs. There are of course a few examples where we have succeeded in capturing the public and politician's imagination, but on the whole, infrastructure is seen as an expensive luxury.

And private financing is making it even more competitive. In the past much of the country's civil engineering was paid for directly by central government.

The need for infrastructure was recognised and the cash found to pay for it. Today the needs are still there but central government funding is largely being replaced by private finance.

The result is that more than ever civil engineers must sell their projects to potential investors. And whether public or private, just like Sir Ranulph's sponsors, they will demand a return on the investment. So, as we approach a general election, it is vital that we raise our profile and ensure our sales story is exciting, compelling and meets the needs of our clients. If not, the money will be invested elsewhere.

Civils projects will always be great adventures. But times are changing and to be successful in the modern world we must be realistic and professional about how we make projects happen.

We offer a unique and valuable service to society. We must get out there and remind everyone about this service and then deliver it. Just like Sir Ranulph, we cannot allow ourselves to be satisfied with planting the second flag on the summit.

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