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The modern world is more complex, but innovation remains key

So we’ve survived the Comprehensive Spending Review and now have the National Infrastructure Plan as a unique and positive commitment to infrastructure investment as an economic driver.

But what will be the real role for engineering in the post economic downturn drive towards a low carbon future?

I spent last Sunday afternoon mulling over this issue at the annual Battle of Ideas event hosted by London’s Royal College of Art.

The proposition was that in our drive for greater efficiency, lower emissions and the delivery of more for less, we were actually limiting our ability to innovate and push at the boundaries.

And unlike the Victorian engineers of the past, our thinking is now hindered by a multitude of constraints - be they environmental, financial, safety, technical or social – within which we are forced to operate.

When you look at the challenges facing say, the rail, energy or water industry today, you have to accept that this argument has some merit.

Compared to modern engineers, the likes of Brunel and Bazalgette had a pretty clear run when it came to the constraints within which they operated.

Of course they had to keep their clients on side, avoid killing their workers and ensure that their designs were technically possible and fit for purpose. Yet beyond that, the sky was pretty much the limit in terms of where their thinking and innovations could go.

Today engineering design revolves around negotiating the constraints.

While computer technology has lifted the veil on what is possible, our modern constraints now throw a blanket over what can actually be achieved.

So as we move forward with this quest to construct the infrastructure for a new low carbon future, are we, in our search for efficiency and economy, condemning ourselves to a bland, timid future of uncrossable boundaries and unbreakable limits?

Will our brave new age of low carbon austerity mean creating a world of consistent, safe and affordable blandness?

My answer on Sunday and now is absolutely not. Constraints have always been integral to the design process and have always been the true drivers of innovation in engineering.

Our Victorian forbears are considered innovators because they pushed through the boundaries of their time which largely governed what was technically possible.

Then, as today, it was the need to push at these limits that drove the vital engineering innovation.

Of course they didn’t always succeed. Bridges and tunnels collapsed, infrastructure ventures ran out of money or failed to win customers. But nor will we always succeed today, although like our constraints, our failures will also be different.

Engineering is being handed a critical role in shaping the transport, energy, water and social infrastructure for a new low carbon economy.

Whether during infrastructure planning, financing, design, construction, operation or maintenance, timid thought and staying within limits will not be part of the solution.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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