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Chrimeswatch | Our legacy is a great asset

We are now a third of the way through the ICE bicentennial celebrations and I’ve been delighted to see how well they have been going.

Ice portraits chrimes 109 cropped

Ice portraits chrimes 109 cropped

Mike Chrimes

It is clear that the contribution of civil engineers to modern society resonates with the public. This is reflected in the visitor numbers for the Invisible Superheroes exhibition and the number of website hits for the ICE 200 videos and project pages. The celebrations have enabled hundreds of volunteers to get involved and talk about the achievements of the profession. By Easter, 70,000 visitors had viewed the ICE 200 videos featuring experts and the projects themselves.

Almost all members at some stage in their careers will be involved in dealing with existing assets, and understanding their heritage will ensure they are well placed to undertake such work. While many aspire to create megastructures, far more will be involved in their upkeep and their interface with future and indeed, existing infrastructure.

In the past, the learning legacy was shared by discussing case study papers at ICE meetings, and reading the published accounts – the first Telford Gold Medal paper on Hull Docks by John Timperley being an outstanding example.

However, over the last 20 years, the briefs for major projects have explicitly included consideration of their learning legacy. These have aimed to ensure the whole profession and indeed, wider public benefit from many facets of collaborative experience rather than just a temporary wow factor. Projects like High Speed 1, the Olympics and now Crossrail devoted a great deal of effort to ensure the proper archiving of their achievements, taking advantage of rapid advances in information technology as well as traditional learned society meetings and publications.

Now that we have 20 years or so worth of experience with “learning legacies”, perhaps the time is ripe for a review. Have geotechnical engineers been better than structural engineers at taking advantage of these “memory systems”? We need to look at the extent to which the profession and other audiences have taken advantage of these efforts and fulfilled the objectives of the legacy designers.

A perhaps surprising learning application for a very ancient civil engineering structure has been found by British Museum staff in Iraq. There, British archaeologists, who are training their Iraqi counterparts, are using the Girsu (Tello) Bridge as an example of an excavation/conservation project. The site dates from 3000BC and was first excavated in the 1870s. It is now being revisited as an international scheme to support a new generation of Iraqi archaeologists in restoring their heritage after the recent devastation of successive military conflicts.

With so much still to learn from a 5,000-year-old structure, today’s engineers should feel challenged and encouraged to preserve their work for future scholars. The legacy we leave could be far larger than we first imagined.

● Mike Chrimes is an engineering historian

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