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Entrepreneurial engineers needed more than ever

Antony Oliver

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Maidenhead Bridge has carried increasingly fast and heavy trains on the Great Western Railway since 1839, and was appropriately flagged by bridge architect Martin Knight at last week’s Future of Design conference as a prime example of infrastructure design excellence.

As the world’s flattest brick arch, the design was highly efficient, elegant and built to last. More importantly, as Knight pointed out, it was designed to flatten the alignment and so minimise running costs and give greater returns on investment to shareholders.

It was design beyond the academic exercise; a piece of clever infrastructure that, simply through its being, was able to generate revenue savings from fuel costs and maintenance and to become a crucial factor in the compelling business case needed to beat competitors on the busy London to Bristol route.

As Knight noted, 170 years later we have much to learn. While the technology and materials of bridge design have certainly moved forward to a point where we could easily improve on Brunel’s bridge, we have, if anything, gone backwards when it comes to designing infrastructure with tangible returns.

Fast forward to this week’s CBI/KPMG annual infrastructure survey for the evidence. The UK, it points out, languishes at 24th in the World Economic Forum’s ranking for overall infrastructure quality; and 61% of businesses feel that our infrastructure compares unfavourably with other European competitors.

Add to that the fact that only 35% of firms believe that current government policies will provide the vital impetus for private investment, and the outlook for the UK economy is pretty bleak.

Government accepts infrastructure is key

The government has now, it seems, accepted that decent infrastructure is key to future wealth creation - perhaps because business has been saying so for so long.

But there is still a clear feeling that, for our fragile coalition government, the easiest option politically is still to do nothing.

Engineers have to meet this head on. We have to become more Brunelian in our thinking and our actions, and embrace the economic and political aspects of our infrastructure ideas as well as the technical ones.

That means not just making sure things don’t fall down but focusing on investment returns, clients’ business needs and talking bravely about what needs to happen to raise the financing.

In return, government has to loosen its grip and actually push forward with schemes to enable private sector investment to flow into projects such as the Thames Tideway, Mersey Gateway and the A14 upgrade. Then, it has also to back and underwrite investment in real and vital projects to revamp our ailing local roads network and Victorian water systems.

While much has changed since Brunel’s day, when it comes to infrastructure engineers still have plenty of good ideas. The trick, as always, is harnessing them.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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