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Wider lessons of failure

Screen shot 2017 11 09 at 16.33.13 crop

Your December edition addresses the issue of failure, in the context of the Grenfell disaster, and it is right that we do this (New Civil Engineer, December 2017). And on the first page, the ICE viewpoint talks about the need to celebrate  our engineering successes more. I think these two are closely linked.  

We need to talk about technical failures that cause loss of life. But we also need to talk about failure in a wider context. Failure is a much bigger subject, in that we fail when we do not anticipate changes that cost billions to the public purse. This is ultimately taxpayers’ money that cannot then be spent saving lives in the NHS. If we want to be taken seriously and really valued, we need to be able to see the bigger picture.

We need to counter the increasing blame culture with an embrace of failure, in a positive way as surgeons increasingly do, allowing, and finding, mechanisms for discussion of failures and near-misses in order to learn from them. But limiting failure to incidents leading to loss of life limits our response – we need to also to talk about failure in leadership and management. We can then also evaluate our response to failure, and the rising cost of UK Infrastructure, and know if it reflects good risk management, risk aversion or bad management.

Addressing failure should be seen as a sign of confidence in our industry, if we want to say, as Andy Mitchell also says in this edition ‘we are as good as anyone in the world…. and increasingly better’. We need to discuss and to pass on learning about strategic and management failure.

And this discussion of failure will help us to articulate our successes. With a greater understanding of the risks, and acknowledgement that things do not always go to plan, our successes are doubly impressive. Sometimes I feel that articles in the trade press are written as if design decisions are a done deal. We can learn from what they do well on Grand Designs, exploring the potential pitfalls to appreciate the finished article better!

  • Isobel Byrne Hill (M)

Following the “Learning from failure” feature in the December issue, I wanted to write and praise the thorough root cause reports from the Rail Accident Investigation Branch. While many of their reports might be more about railway systems and of less interest to some civil engineers, there have unfortunately also been some on full and partial bridge collapses due to reasons including foundation scour from flowing water, hidden critical structural elements which corroded and were not picked up on inspections, and a burst water main struck during coring works. These and many other rail accident reports contain excellent learning points for civil engineers across many sectors.

Adapting Engineers to tech innovation

As a civil engineer that works for Gartner, the IT research and advisory company, I was interested in two recent articles discussing the future role of technology in civil engineering. The first was the Robert Mair interview (New Civil Engineer, December 2017) and the second was the one on artificial intelligence with Richard Susskind (New Civil Engineer, last month).

The Robert Mair interview was particularly interesting and contributes to an essential debate on the augmentation of structures with IT and the skills needed by civil engineers. It also raises a few questions: will the incorporation of technology and algorithms become the deciding factor for a winning structural design? And if technology, data, artificial intelligence and algorithms become an integral part of a “smart”, responsive structure, who will be managing them, ensuring the security, performance and safety of what has been designed? Will it be civil engineers?

The future should not be bleak for those who can adapt. Leaders in technology have projected the end of jobs and spoken of potentially dire outcomes resulting from the use of artificial intelligence (AI). Notable studies have emerged over the last few years projecting varying degrees of job losses. This task-level analysis and focus on certain professions has provided valuable insight and fuelled the ongoing debate as to what, in the end, the impact of AI will be on jobs.

However, a study by Gartner published in November 2017 predicted that: “In 2020, AI becomes a positive net job motivator, creating 2.3M jobs while only eliminating 1.8M jobs”.

The analysis shows that AI-enabled decision support is the greatest contributor to business value creation, overshadowing AI process automation throughout the entire forecast period of 2015 through 2025, globally.

Once knowledge workers incorporate AI into their work processes, the combination — known as a “centaur” — will be hard to imagine living without. The centaur model will eventually become a competitive necessity.

  • Roger Cox

Value engineering Stonehenge bypass

In “Tech Bites” you note that Highways England is seeking to undertake value engineering to reduce the cost of the Stonehenge project, having appeared to have accepted the high cost of tunnelling (New Civil Engineer, January). It would appear that little cognisance has been given to the in-depth study undertaken some 12 years ago by Costain/Balfour Beatty with Mott MacDonald/Gifford where detailed value engineering was undertaken comparing costs of constructing the tunnels by means of TBM, sprayed concrete lining and cut and cover methods. The conclusion reached then was that the projected cost of the project of £500M was not affordable.

How on earth can the recently stated projected cost of £1.6bn now be considered “affordable”?

The task of Highways England should, in this instance, surely be to improve the traffic flow on the A303, not to get drawn into providing a non-essential project involving a very expensive tunnel to satisfy the whims of politicians not in the least bit concerned at the frustration and delays caused by existing congestion on the A303. This stretch of road can be improved by simply providing a dual carriageway without the tunnel at a cost saving of well over £1bn. That is perhaps what “value engineering” is intended to show.

  • Derek Godfrey (F)

Editor’s note: We’d be interested to hear how many other readers think the Stonehenge conundrum can be solved by simply dualling the existing road across the World Heritage Site.

Losing our Bridge building skills

I read Chris Plant’s wholly legitimate concerns about construction procurement and the civil engineering industry  (Your View, last month). I started my career when the Humber bridge was under construction – designed by Freeman Fox, financed by Humber Bridge Board and the UK government and built by British Bridge Builders and John Howard Ltd. Even the tolling system was UK manufactured. When completed this was the longest single span suspension bridge in the world and was so for some years.

As I leave the industry the Queensferry Crossing has been recently completed. This project used, on the whole, German, American and Spanish contractors with most components sourced from overseas. The design appears to have been carried out mainly by overseas staff. It is claimed to be “the longest three tower cable stayed bridge in the world” and I suppose this gives it some significance, although not quite the same as the Humber in its time, yet overseas skills were still deemed necessary.

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Dji a03674 c010 20171014 002244

Mersey Gateway: Significant overseas content

The Mersey Gateway has also recently opened – designed by overseas consultants, financed mainly by a group of overseas investment houses and constructed by Spanish, Japanese and UK contractors although, according to Merseylink’s construction director, the UK contractor provided “local knowledge and experience”, whatever that means (New Civil Engineer, last month).

These situations seem to have arisen due to a combination of the sale of most of the UK’s successful businesses and a lack of policy towards the maintenance and development of UK capabilities, from the government down through other clients.

I know things have changed and moved on during my career but it would not appear that they have moved completely in the best direction from the points of the UK civil engineering industry and UK investment in the national asset.

  • Mark Shorrock (M)

Autonomous vehicles can deliver enormous benefits

I was interested to read your editorial “Kick out the old jobs” in which you state that the purposes of autonomous vehicles are unclear (Comment, last month).

I suggest they have the potential to transform the way people move around and interact with each other by delivering radical improvements in areas like traffic management, congestion and policing by consent.

Imagine an autonomous vehicle moving smoothly at the speed limit along a road. Without fuss it pulls out to give a cyclist plenty of room then, alerted by a chip embedded in a white cane, waits patiently to turn into a side road while a blind person crosses.  Driver, cyclist and pedestrian all reach their destinations quickly, safely and without feeling harassed by other road users.

Such arrangements would of course deliver huge savings in health and social security budgets, but I believe the eventual benefits will transform society in ways going far beyond money.  I hope New Civil Engineer will play a role in pressing policy makers and engineers to imagine and create such a future.

Peter Glass (M)

ICE ‘Masterchef’ programme’s missing ingredient

Wasn’t it just fabulous to see the ICE on the BBC when it hosted one of the recent quarter final heats of MasterChef? The magnificent and historical surroundings provided the perfect theatre for the President and his guests and weren’t they just treated to some absolutely awesome culinary delights by this year’s contestants!

But as I sat watching, my mind wandered away from the competition and to the fact that, alas, an opportunity had been missed given the very limited television coverage afforded to the ICE and in consideration of the likely viewing audience.

Because I couldn’t help wondering why the President’s table didn’t have a far greater female representation? We are all too aware of the fact that the ICE membership and the civil engineering profession as a whole is male dominated, so there was no need to reinforce this intentionally or otherwise.

How does this fit with the our need to attract far more women into the profession? How many such chances do we get to showcase what an exciting career civil engineering can be for women and what immense contributions are being made currently by high achieving female engineers?

What were the marketeers at the ICE thinking?

  • Ian Moore (M)

Do longer prison sentences improve safety culture?

I refer to your feature regarding the introduction of longer sentences for health and safety breaches (New Civil Engineer, December 2017). In many jurisdictions we have seen the introduction of longer sentences to reduce crime. Does it work? I think not. In the United States the three strikes policy just filled up the jails.

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Istock 477671151

How much of a safety incentive is a long prison sentence?

As for the proposed increase in maximum jail terms from 12 years to 18 years for negligent manslaughter, I cannot believe that anyone who sets out to cut corners and put people at risk would weigh up the potential increase in his jail sentence as a factor.

  • Howard McKay (M),

Mind your language

I disagree with ICE director general Nick Baveystock (New Civil Engineer, last month). It is precisely because we seek to communicate in a language that the public readily understands that our status in society is below that of lawyers, doctors and even architects.

If I may refer my fellow members to Albert Hammond who sang about how he gave up his parents’ career choices of “a lawyer or a doctor or a civil engineer” “for music and the Free Electric Band”, that is possibly the only time we have had equal billing.

Perhaps we should use more Latin.

  • Mike Hall,

Civils courses are not shrinking

In the January 2018 edition of New Civil Engineer you feature a letter from Stephen Gibson “Losing our expertise”. Gibson claims that “in the last 20 years, over half of the UK’s universities have stopped teaching civil engineering.” (Your view, last month).

This is completely untrue and surely he should have checked out the facts before making such a wild claim. The information about civil engineering courses is publicly available on the Joint Board of Moderators website.

There are currently 49 UK universities listed which have provided accredited civil engineering degrees during the period 1999 through to 2017 and beyond.

Only Aston and Queen Mary/Westfield College have actually stopped their courses in that

period, and one might perhaps include Umist (although in practice it still exists as it formed a larger merged course at Manchester University when the two universities merged).

To this list one can however add new courses at Hatfield, University of Central Lancashire, Northumbria, Sunderland and Llandrillo (Bangor) with further openings now planned at four more universities.

So the number of civil engineering courses has actually risen, and is continuing to rise.

I suppose that one should not let the inconvenient truth get in the way of a good story, but I find it very concerning that a civil engineer can make such an demonstrably inaccurate statement.

  • John Roberts (F) (former chairman, JBM)

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