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Brave new world

Jubilee Introduction

A lot has changed since 1952, including the reality of life for civil engineers. ICE President Mark Whitby opens NCE's Golden Jubilee special with his own very personal take on the last half century.

Could anybody 50 years ago have imagined where we are? Can we imagine where we will be in another 50 years?

Images abound, both remembered and rediscovered from childhood books, of a brave new world in storeà a welfare state.

The picture is of a fast approaching 'Dan Dare' world, a new order of clean green spaces with suspended transport systems linking towerblocks, tubular steel furniture, supersonic aeroplanes, tourism to outer space and pristine health.

Strangely, it was as if we had overwritten the past, as if there was no heritage and little room for individual expression.

Growing up, one discovered the reality of new towns, connected with motorways, the city elevated and the old towns strangled. An engineering vision of modern Britain perhaps, but a vision that was flawed and would be jettisoned by the prosperity of the baby boomers.

This new generation's rediscovery of heritage and the individual turned the welfare state into the enterprise state. Assets that had been generated by the post-war infrastructure investment were cashed in and an increasingly hedonistic lifestyle evolved that would peak with the spending of our inheritance in the boom and bust years of the 1980s and 90s.

Civil engineers had delivered their dream and created the nightmare. In the ultimately connected society the community no longer communicated.

Lives became atomised as metal boxes delivered people to and from concrete bunkers.

Cities lay silent at weekends.

Society despised the engineer.

Beneath the surface the giant stirred. The baby boomers, whose babies had gone, rediscovered both the corner shop and opera. Swampy repaid the politician and railways reclaimed the agenda. Civil engineers moved from selling services to providing integrated solutions. Risk and value became part of their new vocabulary. It began to rain and we talked of a controlled retreat.

The new threat became the environment we had created and the environment we now had to nurse back into equilibrium.

Somehow, it is as if those idealistic hippie characters who were reinvented as renaissance engineers - civil engineers - the readers of cult classic Dome1 built the Dome Communities rediscovered themselves and looked for the means to repossess the space between, our civil engineers became the social engineers, responding not to dreams but to desires, recreating and maintaining the infrastructure that underpins welfare and wealth.

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