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Interview: David Balmforth, change bringer

ICE President David Balmforth set out to be “sensibly challenging” to the profession in his year in office. Here is an update.

I am going to be setting a challenging vision for the future, and I like to think that it’s a year where I can inspire civil engineers by showing them that civil engineering is a profession where we really do make a contribution to society.”

That was the bold assertion of David Balmforth, speaking to NCE a week ahead of his inauguration as ICE President in November last year.

So now, six months in, can he see signs of that inspiration - engineers being inspired by his vision and inspiring to the wider world? Well, he certainly has been inspired by what he has seen.

David Balmforth

Balmforth: Sharing UK expertise globally is a vital ICE function

“I’ve been inspired by the extent to which our members are engaging with local influencers. We really are beginning to get traction on the infrastructure at local level,” he observes.
Balmforth, as with every president before him, has spent most of the first six months of his year touring the ICE regions - in the UK and overseas - and for him it has been very revealing, not least in the way the ICE regions are now engaged with local media.

“I have seen the revitalisation of the This is Civil Engineering campaign in places like Birmingham New Street station in the Midlands and the Borders railway in Scotland.

“And we have had good press coverage of presidential visits in local media,” he observes.

“There is a growing interest in our work as civil engineers in the local media and that is actually a good way of showcasing what we do. People do watch and listen to the local news and somehow it is easier to engage at this level - there is a real direct impact on people’s lives.”

“There is a growing interest in our work as civil engineers in the local media and that is actually a good way of showcasing what we do”

Balmforth is particularly struck by the media engagement at local level that his Hong Kong visit delivered. Hong Kong is a place where engineers have been in the spotlight after a series of delays to the high-profile metro and high speed rail projects.

Around a dozen journalists from Hong Kong’s media turned out to meet Balmforth and hear his views of project delivery.

“In Hong Kong there has been a quite a lot of criticism in the press of cost over-runs and delays to major infrastructure projects there.

“In the UK we have made good steps forward on [tackling] that and in Hong Kong they were interested in what lessons we could share,” says Balmforth.

Cost and time overruns

Balmforth discussed how lengthy planning periods and adversarial contracts can often result in projects suffering cost and time overruns and explained how experience in the UK had showed that streamlining planning, improving project estimating and - in particular - adopting a more collaborative approach to contracting by using contracts such as the NEC3 had helped to tackle these issues.

It was clearly a significant and memorable moment in Balmforth’s year to date. “Sharing lessons globally is exactly what we should be doing as a global body,” he stresses.

Another significant challenge faced by the profession is the challenge around diversity, and Balmforth has made a statement of intent here too.

“The diversity agenda is central to the future of the industry and I want to see more progress,” he asserts. “I want us to have a much firmer plan.”

Diversity commission

He has brought in Women’s Engineering Society president Dawn Bonfield to lead a Presidential Commission on diversity. He cannot say much about it right now - in his words he wants Bonfield to have a “free hand and to be radical”.

But she will report back later this year, and Balmforth expects her recommendations to be acted on.

The challenge of broadening the ICE’s membership while retaining the gold standard status of the ICE’s qualifications - the subject of an ongoing debate at Council - was another part of Balmforth’s pre-inauguration message.

Narrow view

“I think there is a danger that we see civil engineering in too narrow a light,” says Balmforth. “What I want to encourage Council and others to do is to consider what the Institution needs to do to be relevant for the future and to think about its make-up,” he says.

“Civil engineering is constantly changing and the Institution needs to remain relevant. And in that context it is really important that Council has space to debate this in a measured way,” adds Balmforth.

The means by which the ICE could begin to broaden its membership base will start to crystallise with a framework emerging “by the end of the year”, promises Balmforth.

“We have been talking about it for a while and we will start to see the thinking emerging by the end of my year (in November),” he adds.

“I’m hoping this comes out as a real opportunity for us. I’m excited by this; it is good to have this debate.”

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