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Graham Watts ICE stands the test of time


On 20th May I joined an overcrowded and uncomfortable bunch of industry bigwigs at the House of Commons to witness the launch of the Design+Build Foundation's registration scheme. The main proceeding was a 40-minute presentation, in which Bernard Rimmer told me more than I would ever wish to know about the scheme. But in the middle of it he took a few seconds to say that he was resigning from the ICE.

Assuming that the object of the launch was to gain publicity for the registration scheme, this confession was an ironic own goal, since many of the headlines concentrated on his decision to leave one institution, rather than launch another!

Membership of a professional institution is a personal thing and it's best kept that way. The construction professions inhabit more than 20 such institutions. If you think these are 19 too many, let me remind you that they all exist within a free market. People choose to join them and jump through difficult hoops and over high hurdles to do it. It's a lot easier to leave them than to get into them. Yet only one of the 20 has lost members over the past decade. Using this key performance indicator to measure their effectiveness in their primary function, one must conclude that - after all these years - they remain successful.

Dr Rimmer is more comfortable with the new wave of organisations, such as the Design+Build Foundation and the Movement for Innovation (why do they all sound like cults?) than with the ICE. He is quoted as saying that the Institution does not make any material difference to the industry, it is a narrow group of disciplines, it creates barriers to improvement and that he does not need to be Chartered to do his job.

Well, the latter is true as it is for every construction professional. There is no statute that requires anyone to be chartered to do any construction job. So why have hundreds of thousands of engineers aspired to be Chartered and why has it taken Dr Rimmer most of his career to decide that he doesn't want it anymore?

The civil engineering profession produces some miraculous, beautiful and life-enhancing things. It gives structure and functionality to our lives and that it can do so requires a structure of its own. That depends on many things but, in direct contrast to Rimmer's claim, the ICE is the body that created, enhances and advances the profession and therefore the industry within which it operates. Isn't this the essence of making the material difference of sustained improvement?

It was doubly ironic that the news of Dr Rimmer quitting the Institution appeared in NCE alongside engineers' warnings about the co-ordination of international aid and shelter for Kosovan refugees. Most civil engineers will be justly proud of the way the ICE has fostered the ability to quickly improve people's lives after tragedy. Where is the narrow thinking here?

Dr Rimmer complains that the ICE looks after a small group of disciplines. I could understand that criticism in building where every function has its own institute, but the ICE brings all the civil engineering sectors together within the same body: client, manufacturer, designer, manager, technician, constructor and so on. All are found within the membership of the ICE: a very model of multi-disciplinarity.

I'm not convinced about the importance of the unproven DBF but I am a fan of Dr Rimmer's other favoured body, the Movement for Innovation. More than a fan, since I'm one of the few private sector chief executives putting money into it. It is an exciting body, designed to be free-thinking and purposeful. But it already has a Board of 23 people and a growing network of working groups. It has agendas and minutes and churns out reams of paper. It is quickly turning into an institution.

The Movement for Innovation was set up for a short but purposeful life. The ICE has already had a long and distinguished one. I'm sure that they will both make a material difference to the industry but only one is likely still to be here in ten years' time.

Graham Watts is chief executive of the Construction Industry Council

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