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Changing technology is changing our skillsets

Mark Hansford

By 2050 the world’s population is forecast to grow from around 7bn to around 9bn. Of these 9bn, some 75% are likely to live in urban environments, up from 50% in 2010.

The planet has a finite set of resources and civil engineers are going to be in huge demand as the planet seeks to come up with innovative solutions for feeding, watering and sheltering all of these people and connecting them to places of work.

It’s a heck of a challenge, even before you throw in climate change.

The sheer scale of it calls for a new approach to infrastructure - one that involves getting more out of what we have and making the most out of what we build. What we need is intelligent infrastructure that optimises energy generation and distribution; makes buildings smarter; makes trains faster and more efficient; and keeps traffic flowing.

That means we civil engineers have to change. It’s something that the ICE recognises in its latest State of the Nation report, published today.

While focused largely on the current state of the UK’s infrastructure (not great, by the way), the report looks to the future and challenges engineers to step up to the new demands being placed on them. Specifically, the report acknowledges that the civil engineering industry of tomorrow will require a wider range of skills and competencies.

“Civil engineers should take responsibility for their learning and career development to ensure that they are properly equipped to deliver and manage the transition to a low carbon economy,” says the report.

“From a technological perspective the shifting climatic baseline, the use of building information modelling (BIM), the low carbon agenda, use of off-site construction, globalisation and innovative approaches to improve resilience are all changing the skill sets that engineers and engineering require,” it says.

It is absolutely right. The skills required of young professionals are changing rapidly. Detailed design is still being done by graduates in design offices - but by graduates working in Manilla and Bangalore. The bread and butter of a UK graduate is not there anymore. It’s a similar story out on site: BIM means less measuring and re-measuring; and off-site construction means less site supervision. What is a modern graduate to do?

The skill is in innovating and in understanding and embracing the opportunities presented by emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles. As Arup infrastructure director Tim Chapman tells us this week, much of the technology for cars that drive themselves is already here. And that technology is going to cause a massive change in the way we use our roads. It just is.

There will be similar innovations and advances in materials and advances in 3D printing. Modern professionals will need to grasp the opportunities presented by them.

The good news is that enough forward-thinking companies, organisations and institutions such as the ICE are getting this. There is suddenly much more talk around these kinds of innovations.

So while the current prognosis for the state of the UK’s infrastructure is firmly “in need of attention”, there is hope. And not just for the UK’s infrastructure, but for those of that rapidly growing global population.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor

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