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David Balmforth interview: Position of trust

Incoming ICE president David Balmforth has clear views on the future engineer. He tells Mark Hansford what behaviours and skillsets he sees as key for civil engineers seeking to shape a better world.

“I want to be sensibly challenging to the profession and industry in terms of the future challenges we face. I want to set out an agenda. An agenda about where the profession needs to go. We are at a point in our development where some decisions need to be made.”

That is the bold assertion of incoming ICE president David Balmforth.

Those challenges are the big ones where so far there has been much talk but little action. They include the booming global population, intensive urbanisation; climate change-driven extreme weather; and worldwide fiscal constraints.

Balmforth is out to provoke a little more action in his year in office.

Challenging vision

“I am going to be setting a challenging vision for the future and I like to think that it’s a year where I can inspire civil engineers by showing them that civil engineering is a profession where we really do make a contribution to society.

“But we have a lot to do. We have some major challenges on the horizon and I see our current successes in project delivery as a comfort that we can rise to the future challenge, but I don’t think we should be complacent,” he stresses.

Balmforth’s effort will be centred around the ICE’s “Shaping the World” initiative. Launched earlier this year, it is about creating a fund that allows the Institution to tackle these future issues while still concentrating its existing resources on what he terms the “day job” - ensuring that the profession is meeting client and society needs around excellence in project delivery in the here and now.

And while Balmforth is rightly keen to stress the importance of today’s needs, he is clear that these mustn’t be allowed to get in the way of future thinking.

“We have some major challenges on the horizon and I see our current successes in project delivery as a comfort that we can rise to the future challenge”

“We would be failing in our responsibility to society if we didn’t set out that future agenda,” he asserts. “And it needs to go beyond exhortations to do things differently. We need a plan; a strategic plan,” he states. Shaping theWorld is the basis for that plan. It gives the ICE an additional arm of activity to work on those future strategic issues.

“And more so,” says Balmforth, “It captures the reason many of us became civil engineers. It allows us to ask what the future world should look like. We as civil engineers believe we should be part of that answer. We need to be central to that debate.

David Balmforth

David Balmforth

“This is our agenda,” he stresses. “Done right, it resets civil engineering exactly where it should be - in the very heart of society.”

And for Balmforth the time is right.

“We need to regain the moral high ground in the infrastructure debate; as a profession we’ve not been great at demonstrating the benefits. Yes, we work on long timescales that don’t always fit well with political or social timescales, but I don’t think we’ve always made as good a case as we could have made,” he asserts.

“And as a result we have allowed the moral high ground to be claimed by others, others who are often not very well informed,” he adds.

But he senses change is coming.

“What we say about our work to our families, friends and neighbours is important, as collectively it colours how society sees civil engineers”

“I see a transformation here. It’s about where people put their trust,” he adds. “We are the trusted body. Society looks to us. We are a trusted ally.”

It’s bold talk. And Balmforth believes civil engineers, as a body, are becoming bolder at getting their message across.

“We as a profession are becoming much more comfortable being at the heart of the debate,” he says. “Part of it is down to collective self-confidence born out of practical delivery of projects. Part of it is recognition that we hold the moral high ground,” he says.

Major progress

“We have made some major progress in a strategic sense in how various governments see infrastructure,” he says.

“But when we get down to individual projects, we need to gain much bigger traction from society. Attention is still focused too much on the negative. There is more work to be done.”

And here he wants individual engineers to stand up to help the collective.

“I think it genuinely is a profession that attracts people who are more introverted. There are exceptions.

“But as a rule we are not naturally comfortable celebrating successes,” he notes, adding that this is something that every engineer out there can address for the greater good.

“I’ve never regretted being a civil engineer. I’ve been delighted to work in a profession that makes a positive difference”

“What we say about our work to our families, friends and neighbours is important, as collectively it colours how society sees civil engineers.

“A lot of the way we are perceived in society is down to our individual behaviours and attitudes,” he stresses.

“That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot more we could and should be doing collectively, but the two are not unconnected,” he says.

“Personally, I have always been proud to tell people what I do, and I have always had a positive response,” he asserts.

Poorly paid

He is also keen for engineers to stop fuelling the perception that the profession is poorly paid - as this too is damaging the status of the engineer.

“I’ve always been paid well,” he states, reflecting on a career that began - as it did for many of his contemporaries - working as a bridge and highway designer for a local authority in the heyday of the motorway building programme.

From there he moved into academia, where he spent 30 years teaching anyone from undergraduates to practicing engineers. This was a significant time for him, he reflects.

“It’s probably where my passion for young people, and what they can offer the future, comes from,” he says.

Finally, around a decade ago, he moved back into industry - to get “re-engaged with the real world”, as he puts it.

Since then he has carved out a specialism in flood risk management - taking his experiences in academia and research and putting them to work on real-world problems.

“I like to focus on evidence rather than anecdote,” he states. “Focus on the forensic side of what we do.”

Somerset Levels

So how did he feel about the rather factless debate that built around the Somerset Levels flooding earlier this year?

“It didn’t anger me,” he reflects. “I found it an interesting reflection on how society reacts,” he observes.

Balmforth’s academic past - and in particular his research-orientated work - also goes a long way to explaining another passion of his - innovation.

“I’m very interested in understanding how innovation takes place, and what gets in the way of it,” he explains. “It is one thing to say it. It is another thing to achieve it,” he says of those who say they are pro-innovation in civil engineering.

“Realising what the blockers are is important. If you don’t then you can’t do much about it,” he adds.


Flooding: Opportunity for engineers to engage with society

Contracts are often cited as big blockers to innovation, something that Treasury body Infrastructure UK is working on through its Infrastructure Client Group (NCE 9 October).

Balmforth has sympathy with this problem: “It is a complex issue. The contracts we use by their nature can stifle innovation. But then they are there for good reason,” he observes.

This issue will be a focus for Balmforth’s President’s apprentices who were chosen earlier this month (NCE 16 October). Why? “One of the reasons young people excite me is they come up with fresh ideas. And so I will be really interested to see the ideas my apprentices come up with,” he says.

Full circle

This all begins to come full circle, with the encouragement of fresh thinking, a key part of efforts to address future challenges.

“An important part of the way the profession develops is being able to harness fresh thinking,” says Balmforth.

And that also brings in another hot topic - diversity.

“Bringing together diverse teams in a way that contributes to problem solving can be really powerful,” he states. “And this is not just about gender, but also ethnicity, culture and even age. The diversity agenda is something we should welcome, not just tolerate,” he states. “Diversity creates better businesses and a better working environment generally,” he adds. “And it helps us to focus on what we are really about - making a difference to humanity.”

Balmforth has other ways of bringing broader thinking into teams too.

“A lot of the projects I have been working on involve urban flooding,” he notes. “And the teams I work with I try to get them engaged with the social side of engineering - expose them to the personal hardships people face when affected by flooding,” he explains.

Talk to the flood victims

“Talk to the flood victims who can’t go away on holiday for fear of flooding. Talk to the people who have to get up in the middle of the night every time it rains.
“Only when you see that do you really see what you as a civil engineer do as a civil engineer,” he adds. “It’s really important on a day to day basis to see that,” he emphasises.

This is ever more important as future challenges take hold, adds Balmforth.

David Balmforth cv

Current post: Executive technical director MWH, since 2007
Date of birth: 3 February 1947
BSc Civil Engineering University of Bristol, 1st class honours
PhD Civil Engineering University of Sheffield
Fellow Institution of Civil Engineers
Fellow Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management
Employment history post- 2000
Principal engineer/senior principal engineer, MWH.
2003-4 Principal researcher, UK Government foresight project, “Climate Change, Floods and Coastal Defence”
2005-7 Senior principal engineer, 4 Delivery (joint venture between MWH, Costain Construction and United Utilities).
2005-7 Project principal, Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (UK Government Environment Department) Integrated Urban Drainage Pilots
2007 Technical director, MWH
2007-8 Member of the stakeholder advisory panel to the UK Government’s Review (Pitt Review) of the 2007 UK Floods
2008-11 Advisor to Scottish Government on Flood risk Management Bill
2010-12 Executive technical director, MWH
2010-12 Project principal, Metropolitan Glasgow Strategic Drainage Study. Developing flood risk management, and pollution control for Greater Glasgow
2010-12 Member of the UK Government’s Strategy Group on ‘Engineering, Infrastructure and Climate Change Adaptation. Advising UK Government on the Resilience of Infrastructure to Climate Change and other impacts.
2010-12 Principal Author, Construction Industry Research and Information Association, Design Guide for “Retrofitting Surface Water Management Measures”.
2011 to date Member of the Independent Advisory Panel to Thames Water for Flooding Solutions in West Central London
2011-12 Member of International Expert Panel on Flooding, Singapore Government
2011 to date Executive technical director, MWH. Technical advice to the £280M urban flooding programme for Thames Water (part time)


“A feature of the future is that we will need to engage with the public in a more comprehensive way. Genuinely engage. Particularly with flood risk management, as the solutions will often be softer solutions,” he says.

Which brings us on to changing skillsets. “These solutions will require some different skills and as a professional body we will need to support that. You will see a broadening of our skillset and even what civil engineering covers,” he says, alluding to the ongoing discussion at ICE Council meetings around how to broaden the membership base while retaining the gold standard status of the ICE’s qualifications.

“There are some fundamental questions in there around broadening the membership and attainment, but it is a route we can navigate,” he states.

“It is to do with culture and philosophy and having a profession that is inclusive rather than exclusive,” he adds.

Technicians progress

One area where the ICE is already making positive progress is around technicians, as it is a fully-signed up and supportive member of the EngTech Now, campaign launched by prime minister David Cameron to increase the number of people registering as engineering technicians.

Balmforth is right behind it, with personal experience of what apprentices can bring to project teams.

“When I came back into industry, one of the tasks I had was to build a new team in the Yorkshire region to work on urban flooding,” he recalls.

“I took on some graduates; I had some people transfer in from other organisations; and I also took a number directly in from local colleges at 16. I brought them in as they were particularly keen to work on computer applications - flood modelling software and the like. And I found they were particularly adept at it.

“But I also found that some were clearly able to go in to higher academic learning - so I opened doors to their future career path and they have gone on to great things.

“To me that reinforces the reason to push for more technician members, and for the same reason I will support the broadening of the Institution’s view of what constitutes civil engineering,” he says.
Balmforth is also a fervent supporter of continuing professional development - or lifelong learning as he prefers to call it.

“It’s a better label. It helps people engage with it a bit more,” he says.

And why does that matter?

Learning something new

“One of the exciting things about being a civil engineer is that rarely a day goes by when you don’t learn something new,” he explains. “In fact I’m disappointed when I don’t.

“But sometimes the challenge is recognising that thing when it happens, or recognising it as a learning opportunity in the first place. Lifelong learning is how we foster that, support that,” he says.

“One of the things we all should do is look at the way we coach and mentor. As we go up in the profession, there should be an obligation to coach and to mentor and to share knowledge. I am a massive believer in knowledge sharing; you always get back more that you give,” he adds.

“It is not about ticking boxes, it is about creating the right culture,” he stresses. “And how do we foster that attitude? How do we foster that attitude within the organisations that our members work in? Can we encourage knowledge sharing between organisations?

“The hardest thing without doubt is knowledge sharing between competitor organisations, and that’s where the ICE can be a catalyst.

“Can we encourage more engagement with us?” he asks, “because it would make us much more relevant. That’s the challenge for the ICE,” he says.

So that’s Balmforth’s vision: an Institution and a profession individually and collectively driven by the need to find better solutions: better engineered solutions; solutions that will stand the test of time.

And in doing so he is clear that civil engineers will regain what many see as their rightful place in society; a place he sees civil engineers as never actually having lost.

“I’ve never regretted being a civil engineer,” he reflects.

“I’ve been delighted to work in a profession that makes a positive difference. I’ve had lots of opportunities. I’ve seen some real outcomes. The work is varied. I’ve never been bored. I live comfortably. I don’t think you can ask for a lot more than that.”

  • You can watch the President’s Address online on 4 November at 6pm. Register via or email

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