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Business: For the public good

Mark Naysmith

At the height of flooding in the UK, WSP’s press office was inundated with calls wanting civil engineers to comment in the media.

Last month the flooding in the UK was at its height, ruining homes, cutting off roads and devastating whole communities.Within the first 48 hours WSP’s press office was inundated with calls, wanting civil engineers to talk about flood defences, rail experts to talk about the Dawlish collapse and environmental consultants to talk about the impact of climate change on extreme weather patterns. We did interviews with BBC One 6pm news, BBC World News, Sky News, Channel 5 news, Radio 4, BBC Somerset, the Guardian and the Times.

A similar sequence of events played out last year as well when the floods hit, in December when London’s Apollo Theatre roof fell on its audience and in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy ripped through New York affecting everything in its wake. Before Sandy, journalists had questions about how the buildings and infrastructure would fare, and after the catastrophe, there were worries about how long recovery would take and what the process was after it. We worked with news outlets to help them ensure the technical content of their stories was accurate and to provide information for the public about what to expect.

It’s positive that consultancies like us are approached at all by the media in these situations, but even so I can’t help feeling that it’s too often only when things go wrong that we get recognition for the crucial role our experts play in everyday life, not just in emergencies.

Wouldn’t it be great if we got the same scale of recognition for our creativity and innovation as architects for example? Architects tend to get more profile because their designs are what the public physically sees and I appreciate that, but the design that makes those structures feasible in the real world are just as fascinating.

Is it a symptom of the nature of our profession - and by that I mean everything that makes up our industry from transport planners to environmentalists to engineers – that we are not as quick to fly the flag for our own work as others, or is our work simply not easily digestible for the general public so that media shy away from trying to translate it? I suspect it’s a combination of both and although in the last couple of years there has been a distinct shift towards more built environment stories in the mainstream media – helped perhaps by the government’s focus on infrastructure as a key plank in its growth strategy – I think as an industry we must do more.

The onus is on us to find effective ways to communicate to the public the work that we do and the creativity and skill behind it. In the same way we must be able to communicate our solutions simply and effectively to clients, we must find a way to engage with our ultimate client – society.

If the public truly understood the challenges that we face to design, plan and build structures that can withstand flooding and hurricanes I think they might have more of an appetite for stories about our endeavours and certainly more inclination to consider joining us as a career of choice. This month a new TV series, “Timescanners”, applying high tech scanning to ancient structures like the Pyramids has been launched in the UK on NatGeo channel and it’s fronted by WSP’s Steve Burrows. It’s more of this kind of mainstream profile that we need to address perception issues of our industry.

  • Mark Naysmith is UK managing director at WSP

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