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Opening a dialogue on failure


On behalf of the International Society of Soil Mechanics & Geotechnical Engineering (ISSMGE) it is a great honour and pleasure to address the readers of Ground Engineering for this special preview of the XIIIth European Conference on Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering.

Starting in London in 1955, the European conference has been held across the continent every four years and this year will take place in Prague, the birthplace of the founder of soil mechanics and foundation engineering, Karl Terzaghi, between 25-28 August 2003.

This event is organised under the auspices of the ISSMGE, with the theme 'Geotechnical problems with manmade influenced grounds'. It offers an ideal opportunity to examine the future of geotechnics, the theme integrating environmental geotechnics, special foundation methods for different ground conditions and large urban projects. It also involves soil mechanics, rock mechanics and engineering geology along with humanities and social sciences.

A policy of sustainable development is highly desirable. Common effort will allow growth and ensure comfort for residents of urban areas by respecting the environment, without preventing progress, preserving our most precious heritage, nature.

The conference also aims to identify future needs for special research in these areas and to promote crossfertilisation between scientists and practioners.

Within this framework, it is important to address the role of geotechnics in society, namely has the risk related to geotechnical works been minimised successfully by geotechnical professionals?

Geotechnical structures are vulnerable to accidents, and geotechnics follows a similar path to that described by Samuel Butler: 'Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises'.

Has the geotechnical community explored the best ways for research, design, construction and analysis of behaviour of geotechnical structures and what will be the expectations and targets during the third millennium?

Developments in sampling and ground characterisation have been outstanding, from early primitive shear equipment up to modern triaxial equipment, cyclic torsional tests (Figure 1), CPTU tests and borehole television cameras.

Advances in physical modelling - using centrifuge and shaking table equipment (Figure 2) - and in mathematical modelling - using elastoplastic and visco-plastic models, with applications for static design and dynamic design, have been enormous.

Progress in the use of new technology for construction has also been spectacular and monitoring of geotechnical structures to validate models and to assess the structural safety continues to play an important role.

Nevertheless, accidents such as failures of dams, quay walls, slopes, buildings and bridges - under static or seismic effects, have provoked in geotechnical professionals frustration, pain and shock for the human and material loss and have raised some questions about the current state of knowledge, showing that there are no definitive solutions and absolute truths (Figure 3).

Is nature so complex that it does not allow us to reduce the probability of failure? Or do we need to recognise that failures are the fault of the decision makers, general public, researchers, professors, experts and contractors?

Decision makers should have the courage to accept the opinion of the experts and put the interest of the community above the interest of individuals. But the general public (sometimes with a lack of knowledge of the situation) often forces decision makers to take hasty decisions.

Researchers should not take refuge in esoteric investigations and should try to reduce the gap between the theory and practice, considering the real needs of society. Professors should prepare students for these challenges; to help them develop independent thinking and decision making skills through practice; to stimulate them; to help them explore their intuition and teach them of the importance of engineering judgement.

Experts should accept criticisms to their proposals and should build their reputation on the quality of their opinion and not from their position, while respecting ethical codes.

Contractors should not think only about profits, should not shoulder the highest risks and encourage and contribute to smooth dialogue between all project partners.

Failures remind us that arrogance should be replaced by study of alternative solutions, that different interests and opinions should be considered and past lessons should not be forgotten.

Geotechnics is complex and a great challenge, but we need to recognise that uncertainties exist, recognise the importance of dialogue and pursue perfection to reach the optimum solution.

We should never forget the words of TS Elliot:

'Where is the life we lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?'

The challenge is to cross the threshold between uncertainty and certainty and to find the right answers to these questions.

I hope the spirit of co-operation fostered by this conference will encourage future projects and will contribute to the advancement of knowledge in geotechnical engineering.

I wish all participants a profitable conference and a pleasant stay in Prague.

Finally, I thank delegates for their contribution. I hope the conference allows us to develop a feeling of universal responsibility and to create the ambition to better serve our society. In the words of Oliver Goldsmith in Hope:

'Hope, like the glimmering taper's light Adorns and cheers the way And still, as darker grows the night Emits a brighter ray.'

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