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Comment | Tell us your stories of creative civil engineering

Mark Hansford

So there we go. Three years until Boris Johnson becomes prime minister.

Yep, Bonkers Boris, the man who talks of putting an airport in the Thames Estuary, running a High Speed 4 to the “London suburb” of Birmingham, and boring a Bakerloo Line Extension to Dieppe. Crazy, huh?

Well, maybe a little. But if there is a politician who “gets” infrastructure, it is Johnson. As London Mayor it was he who has kept Crossrail on track; he who has taken the Northern Line Extension from unfunded pipe dream to reality; he who has personally driven forward ambitious art-meets infrastructure projects such as the Emirates Air Line cable car, Arcelor Mittal Orbit and Thames Garden Bridge; and it is he who is now fervently behind plans for more Thames river crossings and Crossrail 2.

Now some of those projects are of questionable worth, and some are, perhaps rightly, criticised. But Johnson is no fool, and if he can bring some of his natural pizzazz and outside-the-box creative thinking to the national infrastructure debate then that can only be a good thing. After all, no-one else is - are they?

Boris Johnson

Boris: Campaigning for infrastructure

And creative thinking - and thinkers - is what we certainly need. That came through loud and clear last week during a fascinating and engaging ICE Yorkshire debate with a largely student audience at Sheffield University. The motion - that more than positive action is needed to challenge social norms and get more women into engineering - left the field open for wide-ranging questions; and a key question concerned the attractiveness of civil engineering to young women - or men - when pitched against other professions (architecture was cited).

To hear, from a fantastically engaged civils student, that without any guidance on how creative civil engineering can actually be, it was “sheer luck” that she landed on it as a degree choice, was depressing. To hear another student gently challenging what can be done to get more creative engineers into schools was equally sad.

Who are our visible creative thinkers? Who is pushing boundaries of what is possible and inspiring a whole generation of bright thinkers to ditch law, architecture or chemical engineering, and go with civil engineering instead?

The answer from us on the stage was, inevitably, you - the more experienced of the 80-strong audience in the room, the chartered engineers watching online, and the rest of you out there who do great things but don’t tell the next generation about it.

My co-arguer for the motion, Network Rail senior asset engineer Clare Brint, would take it further - and compel all engineers to commit to spending a day a year (or more) selling the profession in schools, either as part of compulsory CPD, or as part of their company’s efforts to conform to a British Standard for diversity.

It’s just an idea (we’ve got a British Standard for collaboration, so why not diversity?) and we could do with more.

Because the key lesson from last Thursday was that inspiring, creative figures are in short supply.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor

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