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We can help ministers embrace bigger picture

There are two major government set-pieces coming over the horizon that will have long term impacts – the Autumn Budget and Modern Industrial Strategy – and there is an opportunity within both to illustrate the value the civil engineering community can add. 

Civil engineers and the infrastructure they generate have almost limitless capacity to produce positive outcomes for the country and the population as a whole, but we need to understand how our skills can be unlocked to inform the highest levels of decision making.

In recent years economics has reigned supreme with the Budget proving an opportunity to announce large capital schemes as an injection to revitalise the economy.  

However, Brexit and the recent election result have shifted this balance. The Modern Industrial Strategy could be a vehicle to shift towards rebalancing the economy while considering local outcomes.

This shift will produce conflicting objectives for government departments. What is in the best interest of national productivity, championed by the Treasury, is unlikely to be aligned to what is best for outcomes to society, championed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It will be interesting to watch this dynamic play out. Government is going to have to learn to collaborate.

In more stable times government control manifests itself in processes and systems which cascade all the way out to the supply chain. The Treasury’s Green Book followed by Departmental Economic Appraisal Guidance are prime examples. The focus is on economics – cost/benefit is king – this will not work with competing priorities.

This is where civil engineers can step in. No amount of process, calculations or tools alone will help make decisions on the right projects or the right options to deliver these societal outcomes.

The term “engineering judgement” is used to describe a technical interpretation that informs a decision. This is based on experience, standards and qualifications, plus a leap of faith by those not expert in the area to trust in the engineer. This same approach could easily be applied to the government’s conflicting ambitions. Focusing on outcomes, engineers by their very nature are problem solvers, so why not allow them the freedom to apply their engineering judgement more broadly. Free them from the time/cost/quality parameters in decision making. Empower and engage engineers to work at a macro scale, thinking instead of economic benefit and outcomes for society. This will develop the awareness and impact of their work on society and help them to develop empathy for impacts on society and the economy.

Technological developments are drawing us into this area. Artificial intelligence raises moral and ethical questions which cannot be adequately engaged with through a time/cost/quality lens. It makes more sense through the prism of economic benefit and outcomes for society.  The ICE can and is helping with this. The ICE Thinks programme works in this area, seeks to develop the skills of engineers for application in the broadest sense to solve the big challenges facing society.




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