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It's the way he tells 'em

Cover story Profile

It is an exciting time for structural engineers, says Institution of Structural Engineers President David Blockley, but they must learn to communicate - and perhaps learn to tell a few jokes too, he tells Diarmaid Fleming.

The Millennium Bridge, London Eye, Swiss Re building and Glasgow Wing Tower mean the profile of structural engineers has rarely been higher.

To David Blockley, outgoing president of the Institution of Structural Engineers, this is not surprising. Building is a fundamental human instinct, and engineering is central to this expression.

'The London Eye is tremendous, the Millennium Bridge is brilliant, the Falkirk Wheel a great innovation. It is an exciting time for structural engineering, and the Millennium and Lottery funding have provided great opportunities. When people want to mark the onward movement of life - like the turn of the millennium, a tremendous occasion in the development of the human race - what do they do?

They build!' enthuses Blockley.

'In the past they built the pyramids and cathedrals. Building is an absolutely fundamental human activity and engineers are absolutely fundamental to that. The Millennium showed this and it's tremendous to be part of it: but we've got to be able to communicate that excitement.'

These new structural wonders and the horrors of the World Trade Center attacks have brought a realisation that engineers, not architects, make buildings stand up and can explain why they sometimes fall down. But for many, engineers fix photocopiers or drinks machines.

'We have got to aim at the general public - this will help us with recruitment, with students, children - and we have to explain ourselves. But we need a wide set of skills to do that, which we do not all have, ' he says. 'We are not a people industry, although we are in an industry which is all about people. We tend to be very task-orientated and sometimes are not very good at understanding. I think our education hasn't helped in the past, ' he adds.

Although essential, communication skills are absent from some engineers' armoury, he says. As professor and head of Bristol's civil engineering department, those in Blockley's charge are trained in its use. 'We work very hard with our students on their communication skills and generally they're very good, ' he says, scotching any notion that bad or shy communicators gravitate towards engineering.

'I am keen that people go into schools and different schemes to encourage people to think about engineering, but we're not brilliant at it and sometimes it can be counterproductive. Then we have had students who've gone to work for contractors during the summer and come back completely determined not to go into civil engineering because of the way they've been treated. That's less common now than it used to be, ' says Blockley.

In his presidential address last October - a witty and thoughtprovoking paper where a dry one would not have caused surprise - Blockley set out his engineering stall. In it he said that like it or not, a perception exists that engineers are seen as 'being rather narrowly technical and technically narrow.'

Engineers should 'break out' he says and work out why they are so under-appreciated. To do this, they should each ask what value they bring to a client and society in general, and then set about communicating this on a range of fronts.

Engineers must communicate with clients to inspire confidence and demonstrate value.

They should also communicate with the public to show how engineers 'make it stand up - and safely' and to children to engender a sense of wonderment in engineering and portray engineering as an exciting profession.

Undergraduates should be encouraged that the industry changes sparked by Sir John Egan's Rethinking Construction report mean new opportunities, says Blockley. The government should be told that chartered structural engineering expertise is needed for public safety, and should be made a legal necessity. Other professions should be convinced that engaging good engineers means adding value and saving money.

The IStructE's own leadership should get involved with the media, comment proactively on events, provide media training for all senior executives and regularly brief and invite the media to the Institution, he adds. 'Make us put behind us the image of the 'gentlemen's club' and become a dynamic force for change, ' urges Blockley.

'But we have to use all mediums available, ' he says, and that does not mean just print or broadcast media. Humour is another avenue which he says has not been tried, but could lead to rich rewards for the profession.

In his address, Blockley announced a competition for the best humorous story - the results are at www. istructe. org.

uk/about/presidentsprize. asp - with the winner a story about a complex and costly street possession in Central London to install an escalator. All the engineering went to plan, the huge escalator finally inched into place, only for it not to fit. The best engineering brains could not understand, until a sticker on the escalator saying 'High Wycombe' explained its redundancy in Oxford Street.

'There are hundreds of stories like that out there. It's not a joke, and people thought I was looking for material for after-dinner speeches which I was not. What I was looking for was a James Herriot type thing - vaguely amusing human-centred stories which illustrate what engineers do, ' he says.

'I know lots and lots of kids were attracted to veterinary science because of James Herriot and All Creatures Great and Small. We have only got to find one person in the whole world, one James Herriot for engineering, structural or civil, to do the same.' He is already thinking of a book to describe in an imaginative way the feats of engineers to attract wider public interest.

Other projects include developing his studies on 'biomimetics', literally mimicking biology which, put at its simplest, aims to learn from nature to change the way we do things. He is seeking funding for research to examine how complex systems like buildings or transport networks could be compared with more complex biological systems and improved.

Discovering direct 'mappings' or correlations between biological systems which function effectively, such as humans or animals, and engineered systems such as a complex building like an airport which could function more efficiently, is the challenge.

Two complex systems which do not necessarily have direct mappings are the Institution of Civil Engineers and the IStructE.

He is a supporter of closer cooperation, but does not see a merger on the cards because of the different entry standards.

IStructE chartered membership is contingent on passing the notoriously tough, seven hour 'Part 3' design exam. Recent moves by the ICE to make entry easier for Incorporated engineers probably makes a marriage less likely, says Blockley.

'That's the problem for us - we're going in different directions. Personally, as a Fellow of the Civils, I think their direction is not right. They are being allinclusive and that's good, but I think you've got to pull off the trick of being a specialist and a team player at the same time.

'We want to work together and be constructive, but the civils have to recognise that we have our specialist membership qualification which our members are fiercely proud of, and they will not allow us to give that up. So there's no question of a merger because we would be different then from the rest of the ICE.

'But if the Civils were to have specialist examinations in, say, geotechnics or water management or transportation and those exams were tough professional tests like our structurals exam, then we could be the structural part of an engineering institution.'

Ultimately, he says, closer cooperation can best be fostered through joint meetings, and collaboration on issues such as the recent Tall Buildings report, produced with the ICE Buildings & Structures Board (NCE 9 May).

As he embarks on his presidential tour next week, going to places as diverse as Barbados and New York, he says one of the main reasons for his involvement in the Institution is the almost family-like camaraderie it provides through meeting other kindred spirited professionals. 'You meet people you've never met before, spend a few days with them, and they become your mates, as if you'd known them for years. It's just great fun and what the Institution is all about.'

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