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Future Engineers: Introducing a new kind of engineer

ICE president for 2014/15 professor David Balmforth has clear views on the future engineer. With a broad background and a deep expertise in flood risk management, he knows 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,” he told NCE in October, ahead of his inauguration address.

Those challenges are the big ones where so far there has been much talk but little action: 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. “We have a lot to do,” he said. “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 stressed. Balmforth’s eff ort will be centred around the ICE’s Shaping the World initiative.

Launched earlier this year, it is about creating a fund that allows the ICE 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.

“It allows us to ask what the future world should look like,” he explained. “We as civil engineers believe we should be part of that answer. We need to be central to that debate. This is our agenda,” he stressed. “Done right, it resets civil engineering exactly where it should be – in the very heart of society.”

Certainly NCE’s 2014 Graduate Awards winners would not disagree with that sentiment. They are all very diff erent people, from diff erent backgrounds, with diff erent educations, and diff erent life experiences. But they all want the same thing – to champion the role of the civil engineer in society. And to effect positive change. Take Richard Lebon. Infrastructure does a lot to solve humanitarian problems,” he told NCE.

With three year’s first-hand experience in the field of managing the eff ects of disease, conflict and natural disasters in the developing world, his comments come with real conviction. And he understands the skillsets: “I learned that more often than not, the success or failure of a project is not down to the brilliance of its technicality, but to communication, motivation, training, and looking after a project team, which I think can be the most rewarding side of engineering,” he says.

Ultimate Graduate Awards winner Sophie McPhillips is currently on placement with Engineers without Borders in the Gambia. She epitomises what future engineers look like – yes, they are technically astute, but they also understand broader social issues. In the Gambia she is working with non-governmental organisation Africa Water Enterprises to provide clean, safe water to 10,000 people in rural villages. This will be done with traditional borehole setups, with hand or solar pumps, but crucially, that “we’ll be concentrating on setting up small scale businesses to manage them, run by local people known as village water entrepreneurs.

What we’re doing as engineers isn’t just doing sums. There’s an awful lot more to it.”

David MacKenzie, Flint & Neill

“The hope is that this approach will ensure sustainable water supply in these villages for many years to come,” she says. That ability to not just deliver technically robust solutions, future technology led solutions, but to get out and sell those solutions to the wider world, engage with communities, stakeholders such as local and national politicians – and even the media – are the key attributes to future engineers.

“As Flint & Neill chief executive officer David MacKenzie told NCE earlier this month as part of a round table discussion around future leaders: “What we’re doing as engineers isn’t just doing sums. There’s an awful lot more to it.” But that technical ability does underpin all.

“There is a pressure for us to be innovative,” added MacKenzie. “If you can produce a more innovative solution for a client that will last longer, they will invest in it. So we have to keep challenging the way we do things, and forward thinking leaders have got to have that”.

Many other industries are keen to recruit the brightest engineers because of their ability to solve problems. Some of the leading civil engineering departments report that up to 50% of their top graduates go into different sectors – particularly financial services. In the same debate Amey technical director Jonathan Jarritt said he attracts people into his consultancy business by advertising that the firm can offer “the hardest problems going”.

“That brings in people who don’t want to go into the City – people who really want to make a difference with their qualifications and skills – and they might be engineers,” he said. And as someone who is running his own business unit, Jarritt believes a vital ingredient of leadership – however far you get up the managerial ladder – is maintaining a high level of technical skill; in other words, “leading by example”.

Roger Bullivant director John Patch agreed. “Leaders should have drive and enthusiasm, but they should also be capable of leading by example,” he said. So what’s a future engineer? Someone who can show they’ve inspired others, and taken people with them, as well as recognising the bigger picture of the world we’re living in.


1. Sophie McPhillips, water engineer, Atkins. “Water engineering is about making water supply more efficient; better for the consumer,” she says. “It’s got a people element to it, you can relate to it. I also feel strongly about international development simply because billions of people are still living in extreme poverty, and engineers and their skills are key in the fight to end that.”

2. Fay Bull, flood mitigation manager, Nottingham City Council. “I am passionate about not building everything grey. We want blue green infrastructure, so rather than concreting everything, putting in trees and wetlands. We have brought green infrastructure into dense sites. We are changing which areas flood and where the water will be stored. It’s changing the landscape but less about building big walls and more about the big picture, using swathes of the city to manage flood risk.”

Fay Bull: “We want blue green infrastructure, rather than concreting everything”

Fay Bull: “We want blue green infrastructure, rather than concreting everything”

3. Regina Tumblepot, trainee engineer, Morgan Sindall. “I couldn’t stand the thought of being stuck behind a desk through university, so I decided to look for a civil engineering apprenticeship. It was the best decision I ever made; I love learning, working and gaining experience at the same time. Day to day the job changes, so it’s always exciting but when I have to think of solutions, that’s when I really get my brain working.”

4. Cameron Tonkin, business unit director, Rhead Group. “I am firm believer that it is people who deliver projects. Innovation doesn’t happen with identification of the end solution, but rather a series of sequential events. This starts with good leadership providing a structured but creative thinking environment.”

5. Rachel Skinner, director, Parsons Brinckerhoff. “Our approach has the potential to change the way we approach infrastructure projects at all stages of their lifecycle. We’ve explored the idea that, in addition to having a physical life and legacy, infrastructure projects also have a digital life and legacy. By encouraging technologists and decision makers to focus on this ‘digital potential’ from an early stage, an enormous amount of value can be added for our clients and the public.” 

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