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Paul Jowitt: Driving force

Paul Jowitt takes up office as the 145th president of the Institution of Civil Engineers on 3 November. Antony Oliver finds out about his passion for engineering, sustainability, teaching and restoring Morgan motor cars.

Incoming institution president Paul Jowitt has without question a reputation for being something of a maverick within the profession. But he is not entirely sure about this description.

“I do like to question things, to be my own person and have a sense of humour about things,” he says. “But a maverick… Hmmm?”

It clearly sets him thinking. As is his way. And just to be clear, he emails the following definition the next day: “Maverick: Mid-19th century. Probably after Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-1870), Texas cattle-owner. 1. Independent person: An independent thinker who refuses to conform to the accepted views on a subject. 2. Unbranded animal: An unbranded animal, especially a calf that has become separated from its mother and herd. By convention, it can become the property of whoever finds it and brands it,” says the email.

He adds: “Definition 1 − that’s OK. Definition 2 − probably not OK!”

Far from conventional

Jowitt is certainly an individual and far from conventional: He is an academic but also a businessman; he hails from South Yorkshire mining stock but now lives in an old mews stable in central Edinburgh; he carries a smart phone but there is an old Bakelite bell and dial telephone on the wall at home; and he drives and restores Morgan motor cars, including a 1937 three wheeler but is passionate about sustainable development.

And while his professional life is rooted in the theoretical, his garage is full of well used tools. He is a painter, sculptor and lover of the arts but enjoys a pint of real ale. And as he digs in his allotment for exercise he continues to enjoy a regular cigar.

In short, Jowitt is a wonderful mix of surprising contradictions and delightful juxtapositions. And he is certainly never shy about putting forward a controversial point of view.

“If all presidents were clones the institution would be a dull place,” he says. “But when I have done things and said things that were perhaps a bit different, people tend to have been supportive.”

“When I have done things and said things that were perhaps a bit different, people tend to have been supportive.”

Paul Jowitt

Jowitt is well known around the Institution and the profession for speaking out and creating debate and discussion, not least around critical yet difficult issues surrounding the profession’s reaction to sustainability, climate change, international development and poverty reduction.

In 2003 he was invited to chair the ICE Presidential Commission “Engineering without Frontiers” which took a critical and challenging look at how engineers could help to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals. Then in 2006 he delivered the ICE’s 6th Brunel lecture “Engineering civilisation from the shadows” which combined climate change with poverty reduction and again tackled the issues of sustainability and international development head on.

But he insists that, while he does not shy away from controversy or creating change, the history and traditions of the Institution and profession are really important.

“I am not someone who wants to knock down the history of the ICE − quite the opposite in fact,” he explains. “But I don’t want to just sit back and glory in it. There is lots of work to do but it is not anarchistic.”

Three major themes

On the contrary Jowitt’s presidential year will be highly structured and built around three major themes, each of which will be dovetailed together for maximum impact.

These themes will be around highlighting critical infrastructure, promoting the value of international development and supporting new engineers. For nearly four decades each have been − and continue to be − at the heart of his professional life.

At the start of the year there were a few question marks over whether he would be able to take up office. But a round of major open heart surgery later and Jowitt is back up and, if not exactly running, certainly raring to get stuck into his presidency.

His work will start immediately following his presidential address with the first of his planned presidential apprentice seminars which he hopes will help to cut across all three of his themes for the year (see box).

Three themes

  • Critical infrastructure: Society depends on infrastructure. Investment is critical.
  • International development: Sustainable development, climate change and reducing poverty are all interlinked
  • Encouraging the young: Young engineers are very enthusiastic. You have got to oxygenate it.

His plan will see him host three of these intensive sessions with his 12 young apprentices, starting in London in November then moving to Durban in January and finally to the Unesco HQ in Paris in May.

“One thing that I really wanted to do was to run the presidential apprentice scheme in a slightly different way,” he says. “The focus will be on international development and include engineers from overseas. But I was quite keen that there should be some output from it that any engineer could access.”

The 12 apprentices each come from a different background, education and company. They include a Ghanaian working in Ghana, a Nigerian working in Nigeria, a Chinese national working in Hong Kong, a Chinese national working in the UK, a Zimbabwean working in the UK, a Sri Lankan working in the UK, a South African working in the UK and five others from the UK and Ireland (NCE 22 October).

“Young engineers in my view are incredibly enthusiastic. You have got not to suffocate it but oxygenate it in some way.”

Paul Jowitt

To get the programme off the ground meant Jowitt had to first secure £45,000 of funding from industry with donations coming from MWH, Arup Foundation, Carillion, Costain, Bechtel, United Utilities, Atkins and WSP. “I’m grateful that people recognised that there is value in the project,” he says. “Without the funding it couldn’t happen and there was no Plan B.”

The apprentices will be posed a series of questions covering topics such as capital programming, climate change, anti-corruption and water supply, and asked to come up with actions and recommendations for change.

Clearly the prospect of working with the next generation of engineering professionals is something that excites him today as much as it did when he first found his way into academia.

“Young engineers in my view are incredibly enthusiastic. You have got not to suffocate it but oxygenate it in some way,” he says pointing out that one of his current regrets is not having time to teach any more.

“There is nothing better than standing in front of a class and throwing your notes away and just teaching,” he says. “I have been lucky because I still get asked to do talks. It is not quite the same as teaching but it is as close as I am going to get for a while.”

Building characters

Next month will also see him head to Stuttgart as a judge in the 2009 Unesco-backed Mondialogo Engineering Award. This brings together the top 60 engineering students from around the world to develop projects to improve quality of life in the developing world.

As a judge Jowitt says it is “magical” to see students from distinct and diverse backgrounds working together to solve problems.

He says that being able to work with and help the next generate to blossom is something that constantly excites him. “As an academic you don’t build things you build people and characters,” he explains.

“The nice thing is that as you get older you see students moving through the profession and, like wine, they tend to get better − that’s the great pleasure.”

“As an academic you don’t build things, you build people and characters.”

Paul Jowitt

Jowitt’s wife Jane is also a former academic and so no doubt will have some sympathy with his passion for teaching and encouraging the young. Until recently she taught biology at Edinburgh’s Telford College.

Neither of their children followed their academic direction with son Christopher working in a restaurant in Edinburgh and daughter Hannah a fully qualified architect practising in Birmingham.

But Hannah does share Jowitt’s love of art − many of her works hang alongside his at home − and his enthusiasm for the classic Morgan cars parked in the garage.

For the record he runs a modern 2002 Morgan 4/4 with a 1.8l Ford Zetec engine and a 1937 Morgan Matchless MX4 990cc V-Twin powered Barrel Back Super Sports Motor Tricycle.

He has owned the threewheeler since 1966 and the story goes that, aged 16, he actually wanted a scooter. His dad was less enthusiastic about this decision so found the barely-working Morgan instead for £80. He now has another in pieces in the garage awaiting reassembly.

Jane, he says, merely tolerates the cars. But in and out of the Morgan, she will be supporting him as he travels around the UK, and then further abroad.

International programme

His international programme of visits means that Jowitt will struggle to manage his carbon footprint next year. But he says that he will not be offsetting as it is a concept that does not sit well with him.

In January he heads for Africa as the ICE has its Africa and Middle East convention in Cape Town but he will also visit Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology to look at some interesting work with the Jatropha plant.

“I’ve never seen this plant but I understand it grows in very bad conditions and you can make oil out of it,” he explains. “We will be looking specifically at technologies being developed locally.”

Two cars

2002 Morgan 4/4 with a 1.8l Ford Zetec engine and a 1937 Morgan Matchless MX4 990cc V-Twin powered Barrel Back Super Sports Motor Tricycle


Durban will then be the venue for the next apprentice scheme which will be organised with assistance from the South African Institution of Civil Engineering and then he will head home via Tanzania to follow up on a project started by ICE president Colin Clinton in 2005.

His European agenda will take in the final phase of the apprentice project in Paris in May and after the summer he will take part in the ICE Americas conference in Vancouver and drop in on Hong Kong for a flying visit.

The Copenhagen global climate change summit is not on his itinerary in December but he insists that he will be keeping a close eye on the activities and outcomes.

“Realistically, however, if we haven’t influenced them by now then the chances are it is all too late,” he says. “It all depends on the solid work we have been doing over the last two years helping to formulate policy ideas.”

“It all depends on the solid work we have been doing over the last two years helping to formulate policy ideas.”

Paul Jowitt

Jowitt points out that many members remain quite unaware of this kind of work which the ICE is doing constantly behind the scenes to influence government. He says that one of his goals as president will be to help members get more engaged and so lever more value from their membership.

He describes the recent ICE State of the Nation report on defending critical infrastructure as “a seriously impressive event” and something that he was very proud to see coming out of the institution.

“People have got to realise that society depends on infrastructure and is underpinned by it,” he says. “Recent events have demonstrated the consequences,” he adds, referring to the 2007 floods in the UK which left hundreds of thousands without power or water.

An opportunity to reflect

Explaining the issues surrounding the protection of and need for investment in critical national infrastructure is very important to Jowitt and will feature heavily on his agenda next year. Not least since there is going to be much greater pressure on the public purse going forward and every political party has promised cuts in public spending.

“The ICE’s role should be more important in a post banking crisis era,” he says. “We do have an opportunity to reflect and say what are we doing and why are we doing it. It is an ideal time to look at your infrastructure.”

Despite Jowitt’s clear passion for engineering and infrastructure, he says, somewhat apologetically, that other than a memory of seeing the Kariba Dam opening on TV, there was no defining moment which sent him hurtling toward a career. Nor was there any real family background in the profession. He was brought up in Thurcroft, a mining village near Doncaster, South Yorkshire. The pit closed in 1992 and, while there’s now no evidence of coal ever being mined there, he used to wake up each morning to the pit buzzer.

The closest to any engineering background in his family, he reckons, was probably either his mother’s father who was a blacksmith or his father’s father who eventually worked for Wakefield Water Works.

“The ICE’s role should be more important in a post banking crisis era. It is an ideal time to look at your infrastructure.”

Paul Jowitt

After leaving the grammar school in Maltby, Jowitt worked briefly for Husband and Co starting with a survey of canal bridges in the north of England. This, he explains, involved driving a van with a small dinghy on the roof and deciding which structures were about to fall down.

He was also involved in the pioneering use of early computer road alignment technology for the Halifax Ring Road and was tasked with the job of recalculating the coordinates to take account of the local scale factor.

With his engineering teeth cut, he headed south and to Imperial College London in 1969 and, as he puts it, stayed there until 1986. His degree was followed by a PhD in decision making and he stayed on to teach first Systems and then Water Resources.

The whole emerging area of Systems, including game theory, risk and optimisation, which he studied under the late Dr John (Ian) Munroe, fascinated him and set the path of his career in academia.

“The stuff I was doing in Systems at the start was very computationally driven. It cutacross disciplines,” he says. “I got interested in sustainability and it suddenly dawned on me that the language of Systems was absolutely the vehicle to get across sustainability.”


  • Now Professor of civil engineering systems Heriot-Watt University and executive director Scottish Institute of Sustainable Technologies (SIST)
  • 2002-2008 Scottish Water board member
  • 1999 Launches Heriot-Watt spin out consultancy firm SIST
  • 1989-99 Head of civil and offshore engineering, Heriot-Watt
  • 1987 Joins Heriot-Watt University to launch Systems course
  • 1974-1987 Lecturer at Imperial
  • 1972-1974 PhD at Imperial College London
  • 1972 Graduates from Imperial College London


His success at Imperial won him a move to Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt in 1987 to introduce a new Systems course and two years later was appointed head of department.

He retained this role for 10 years and quickly lifted the department’s research rating from a score of 2 to equal Imperial on 5. However the university recognised his commercial nous and passion for sustainable design and planning and asked him to run a new spin out company, the Scottish Institute of Sustainable Technologies.

Looking at the system

Today this business has a variety of commissions from behaviour change in transport and waste to strategic environmental assessment. It also helped to write the micro-hydro guide to Scotland and is currently looking at carbon accounting for Scottish Utilities.

“When we started doing Systems in the 1970s people were very suspicious,” he explains. “You can’t do sustainability unless you look at the problem as a system. It is not buses versus trains. It forces you to think in a holistic way.”

Jowitt’s academic work has been rooted in the practical world and he is proud to have started and run two successful spin out companies.

The first, Tynemarch, came out of Imperial in 1983. Jowitt was the founding chairman and it produced the first ever real time pump scheduling system.

“You can’t do sustainability unless you look at the problem as a system. It forces you to think in a holistic way.”

Paul Jowitt

He also worked with Severn Trent on its sector-defining risk based asset management project and with North West Water on drought management programming. Until last year he was also on the board of Scottish Water.

“A lot of my research has been for industry delivering real stuff. So that’s why I don’t feel [as an academic] I will have a serious credibility issue with the members.”

As with many recent ICE presidents, Jowitt will continue to do his day job two or three days a week. But that in no way diminishes the importance of or his commitment to the role.

And the current awakening of interest by society and engineering in sustainable development, the low carbon economy and infrastructure means he will have plenty to keep him occupied over the next 12 months.

“Sustainability does map particularly onto the aspirations of young engineers,” he says. “But the forthcoming general election gives an opportunity for the ICE to assemble all its positions and advice and get involved in the debate − it’s very exciting.”

Informed decisions

He says that it is not the role of the ICE or the president to get involved in party politics but instead to ensure that the politicians understand the debate.

“You have to separate personal views,” he says. “Take nuclear − I am not particular anti- or pro-nuclear. But what I am keen about is that before we embark on that road we understand what the risks are.

“We need to look at how much, for how long and how many − you need to figure that out and then provide the people with the responsibility and the information to make an informed decision.”

That said he is also convinced that the ICE does have to have opinions on difficult issues or risk policy stagnation and being ignored by government.

“We have expert panels looking at all the controversial issues and starting discussion,” he explains. “The ICE is investing in getting its message across and has seen success over the last few years. But real success will be ensuring that whoever is in government continues to seek our views.”

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