If the engineering community is to rise to the challenges presented by global mega-trends such as climate change, population growth and resource depletion, it must “adopt the vision, tenacity and ingenuity of our Victorian forebears”, new ICE President David Balmforth said last week.
Delivering his presidential address, Balmforth said early civil engineers like Thomas Telford came together to form a learned society for civil engineers at a point when Britain was “at the threshold of an industrial revolution that would ultimately shape the future of the world”.
He said they “then went on to lay the foundations of the railways, water supply, sanitation and power systems on which modern society still depends”.
Balmforth added: “As well as wrestling with the embryonic principles of construction, they needed to convince wary investors, persuade uninterested politicians, and accommodate a sceptical public that often viewedtheir ideas as absurd.
“Like us, they understood the importance of sharing ideas and providing a platform for change,” he added.
Vision and ingenuity
“But they also had the vision and ingenuity to look forward, see their role in addressing the difficulties that society faced and achieve progress while avoiding disaster. Put simply - they had the vision to step beyond their threshold. Today, we stand on a new threshold for change, in the same way as our Victorian forebears nearly 200 years ago. We must also rise to the challenge in the same way.”
Balmforth is an executive technical director at consultant MWH where he advises on major flood relief projects. He is also an expert in, and media commentator on, flood risk management. He said the global mega-trends such as climate change, population growth and resource depletion “are of such scale that they stretch our ability to comprehend them. They test our ability to imagine a future where prosperity and sustainability can work in harmony”.
Balmforth called for a more radical approach to resilience, adaptability and availability to ensure our already fragile networks can cope with the effects of climate change and population growth, and to ensure infrastructure can adapt in real time to a range of future pressures; and importantly, ensure that infrastructure is something that is available to all.
He also stressed the need to foster innovation. “Innovation is a way of doing things differently, which means it encapsulates uncertainty and the chance of failure. We need a culture that welcomes new ideas, accommodates potential failure and celebrates success.”
He concluded: “Are we really any different from Thomas Telford and his colleagues when they set out on a journey that transformed society? Is our future any less certain than theirs? Are our opportunities any less than theirs? I suspect not.
“Over the generations we have shaped a truly remarkable profession which has proven time and time again that it is able to respond the demands of society. I am confident we can prove our profession ‘fit for the future’.
We have the skills and capability - and most of all, we know it is our job to make a difference.”