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Scrimp on innovation and UK Plc will repent at leisure

Antony Oliver

The current economic climate is focusing the engineering mind like never before on the need to provide clients with the best possible value for every pound they spend.

But that most certainly does not mean abandoning all notion of creativity, pushing at the boundaries of design excellence and constructing structures that inspire and leave a lasting legacy to the community.

In fact, on the contrary, the future will surely be squarely about successfully introducing innovative ideas that deliver better, more affordable infrastructure.

Not least in the world of bridge design where the debate about precisely what constitutes an “iconic” or “landmark” bridge rolls on this week across the pages of NCE.

And I am pleased to say that this debate underlines the need for engineers to constantly remember to lift their gaze from the all-important detail to keep an eye on the bigger picture.

That bigger picture is rooted of course in understanding and developing the needs of the client in terms of function, form and what is actually required to get a structure built.

What the client actually needs

As Arup bridge design guru Naeem Hussain points out, designers can come up with all sorts of outlandish designs but the core must be what the client actually needs.

“Good design respects the site, respects the requirements and it respects the budget of a client,” says Hussain pointing out that, while it is great to push against the norm, if poorly thought out “the cost is so high that the client abandons the project”.

Yet, as Hussain also pointed out this week, research into new ways of constructing remains critical if the UK is to maintain its position at the cutting edge of global bridge design.

This is particularly so, given that nations such as China and South Korea are ploughing huge resources into new long span bridge technologies, which they are then willing to use as they press ahead with their ­construction ambitions.

Sadly in the UK clients are typically less inclined to accept truly innovative ideas. But they must if we are to achieve what we need, and at the price that we have available to spend.

Which brings us back to the engineer’s role and to engineers’ training. While a thorough grasp of mathematics is vital, it is increasingly the ability to properly understand and develop the client’s needs that will determine a project’s success.

Whether we are talking about bridges or roads, railways or power stations, research and innovation will to push our designs forward from the norm and really turn heads and inspire communities.

But unless we can convince clients to adopt these new ideas then we will remain rooted in the here, the now and the known. ­And ­unfortunately, the here, the now and the known has become unaffordable.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

Readers' comments (1)

  • The European Parliament is currently considering the Commission's proposals for the next research framework programme, Horizon 2020. A major part of this programme will be focussed on the 'societal challenge' of transport. Transport infrastructure is, and should be, a major part of that. I would encourage NCE and its readers to talk with their local MEP (especially those on the Industry and Research or the Transport Committees) in the next few weeks. Unfortunately infrastructure (innovation) is still seen as lacking excellence in science, contribution to decarbonisation and relevance to the economy. Our percieved weakness in these three areas needs to be overcome.

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