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Freak out: it makes sense


There are not enough weird people working in civil engineering today. If we want to create infrastructure worth remembering or infrastructure that creates history, engineering fi rms must start to employ more 'freaky people'. And they must allow them to get on and do more 'freaky' things.

This view was proposed by US management guru Tom Peters in his keynote address at software firm Bentley Systems' annual conference in Baltimore last Monday. The failure to challenge the status quo, he suggested, meant the industry had convinced itself that only delivering the best was good enough.

But, he said, the best it is not good enough any longer. 'Being the best stinks, ' he said - the world is changing and being different is more important.

At the heart of the industry's problem, he pointed out, was engineers' desire, above all else, to meet programme and beat budget. This is worthy and sensible, he said. But the relentless pursuit of these goals is killing creativity and hampering the profession's ability to create truly great designs.

'Engineers do some really great work, ' he said. 'But you don't make it into the history books for delivering projects on time and to budget.' Although Peters began his career as a civil engineer, it is the years spent working closely with 'freaks' like Bill Gates and Apple's Steve Jobs at the height of the microcomputer revolution that qualify him so well to judge unconventional values.

Creativity is the greatest resource, he reminded his audience. 'Hire only the best people - find those suckers, pay those suckers and keep those suckers, ' he urged.

Much of what Peters espouses is, he admits, simple common sense. He accepts that in the real world the need to bring engineering projects in on time and to budget will always be important to clients.

Yet it is an absolute fact that civil engineers have become far too distant from real design and real innovation. Too much time and effort is spent on non-creative activities - the pen-pushing, box-ticking, number crunching that keeps the accountants, quantity surveyors and lawyers happy. Over-emphasis on project delivery has hijacked professional creativity and curbed innovation.

As Peters puts it, engineers need the guts to risk failure by attempting something innovative rather that just doing the same tried and tested safe solutions. We need to ingrain in our young engineers the belief that it is 'better to belly fl op attempting a swan dive than to continue pinching your nose while stepping into the water'.

In the UK it is certainly true that, despite years and years of self examination - by Latham, Egan, the Strategic Forum - we are far from being a 21st century industry. We need to remind ourselves and our clients that without proper investment in research, development and innovation we will rapidly fall behind the emerging economies of China and India.

Government must be on hand to help. It is a worry that the latest departmental restructure sees the demise of the Department of Trade & Industry, construction's previous sponsor.

It is up to us to ensure that its replacement, the Department for Productivity, Energy & Industry recognises the key role civil engineering innovation plays in the UK economy.

We will not do this by acting 'normal'. We have to start acting weird and hire a few more freaks. As Peters puts it, we must start a crusade - we have to create a cause rather than just running a business.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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