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Rebuilding the brave new world

John Laverty

Design and ingenuity are needed now more than ever.

It is 60 years since the Festival of Britain, as I was reminded by last week’s BBC TV programme “The 1951 Festival of Britain: A Brave New World”.

Despite the post-war period of debt, austerity and rationing, the Festival showed how to carve out a bright new future through design and ingenuity…while still having fun!

Better way of life

One thing that struck me listening to the interviews and watching the colour film footage was the way the designers, planners and engineers behind the Festival believed that they could bring a better way of life for ordinary
people. Their sense of optimism that science and technology could offer a brighter future was clear.

Today it is easy to forget the devastation across our major cities after the war, although images of the London South Bank as a bombed out wasteland brought that to mind in a most vivid way.

That area is a vibrant cultural space today, to the extent that we are mostly unaware of the regeneration scheme that made it possible. The programme was a reminder that investment in communities and infrastructure can make a huge difference to the quality of our lives.

We face our own time of austerity, although hopefully not on that same stark scale, despite of the fears about the Euro. And we face huge challenges today: energy security, climate change, a national infrastructure that needs renewal. These challenges seem in many ways to be greater than those faced in 1951.

A welcome reminder that design and ingenuity are still alive came from an unlikely source the same week. I was at talk given by Bukky Bird, the head of environment at Tesco. She outlined its carbon reduction programme which aims to deliver a 50% reduction by 2020 and to achieve zero carbon by 2050. What struck me most was the level of detail needed to drive Tesco’s carbon usage down. Its programme covered carbon measurement, new technology (and in some cases old technology brought back to life), customer preferences, “energy hit squads”, trials, refurbishments, procurement, supply chain partnerships … and so on. Hard graft and commitment were the order of the day rather than magic bullets. Her challenge to the construction professionals present was that “we often limit ourselves” and that we need to look beyond minimum targets.

Measuring up

So how will our generation measure up in another 60 years? At the beginning of his presidential year Peter Hansford took up the challenge, tasking a working group to identify the steps that need to be taken at technical, political and regulatory level to achieve a low carbon future for civil engineering. They report back in November so look out for that. And in the meantime I leave you with the thought that design and ingenuity, and engineering, are needed even more today.

  • John Laverty is regional director of ICE South East

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