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Our civilisation depends on you

ICE news - Civil engineers have the potential to solve global environmental and humanitarian problems if they modify their services, new ICE president Gordon Masterton said in his inaugural speech this week.

AT EVERY opportunity I will use this coming year to celebrate the civil engineers who cope with natural disaster and restore normality; the civil engineers who are daring designers of tall buildings, great bridges and dramatic tunnels; the civil engineers who are the great improvers of health and mortality - especially in the developing world; the civil engineers who can create and deliver globally green solutions to the planet's problems; the civil engineers who are exciting to be around; and the civil engineers who can inspire our children.

And it will not be difficult, because civil engineers are not ordinary people. They are extra-ordinary. In my book of civilisation, they are the heroes.

I love that word 'civilisation'.

It springs from the same root as the 'civil' of 'civil engineer'.

What we build is the permanent record of our achievement as a civilisation - the key performance indicators of civilisation if you will. And, they are far more relevant than political speeches or transient events.

I visited Sri Lanka a few weeks after the Tsunami struck.

I saw the devastation. I saw how the removal of the basic life support systems of shelter, water supply, sanitation, transportation and power, renders existence to subsistence level.

When I met civil engineers in Sri Lanka I saw a strong determination to rebuild that gave people hope for the future.

The visit was a defining moment for me in recognising the value of civil engineers.

Without civil engineers and what they create, we simply have no civilisation. We're not just civil engineers, we are 'civilisation engineers'.

In its broadest sense we, as engineers, need to view the 'big picture' in all we do. Brunel addressed the big issues of his day - the growth of trade and transportation's crucial role. If Brunel were alive, his vision and genius would be applied to the planet-sized problems of today.

Solving these problems will require civil engineers to work in partnership, crossing disciplines. We need to use our engineering know-how to help infl ence and educate decision makers to take a global view of sustainability issues.

On the potential merger of the ICE with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, a new way of looking at old problems can result in quantum leaps of insight. If we do not provide the vehicle, then surely it will be all the harder to achieve cross-fertilisation of ideas.

The biggest challenge facing society today, I believe, is global warming and the influence of CO 2 emissions.

In July 2006 civil engineers have an opportunity to demonstrate what we can do to evaluate and alleviate the impacts of climate change. As part of our week of celebrations for Brunel's bicentenary we are hosting the Triennial Conference of ICE and our American and Canadian counterparts, ASCE and CSCE.

The topic I have chosen for this is the safety, security and sustainability of the planet.

I hope that by the end of the conference three of the greatest civil engineering institutions in the world will be able to agree a protocol for engineering a sustainable future for the planet.

I am an advocate of environmentally sustainable behaviour. I am an advocate of public consultation and democracy.

Anything less is unsustainable as a political system.

The model requires that proposed changes to our society or our infrastructure must first win over the hearts and minds of the majority. In cases where there is a confl ict between local planning or environmental constraints and the proven greater good of a new piece of infrastructure, the latter should prevail.

Too often, the argument is considered only in its local environmental context, and objectors win the day. As a result, we fail to deliver the projects that have a better global sustainability footprint.

We need to address how, as a society, we accept some degree of local environmental impact when there is the payback of globally green solutions. In this category, I would include waste recycling plants, waste to energy plants and even nuclear power stations.

Taking a higher-level strategic view of the best globally sustainable options will form part of my agenda for engaging with politicians and influencers during the year ahead. Quentin Leiper will develop this further next year as president.

Everything the Institution does and plans to do is founded on the fi m rock of our core values: Trust and honesty, ethical behaviour and integrity, high standards, quality and professionalism.

Former president Sir Charles Inglis described the true test of an engineering education as the 'habit of mind' that remains, after the detail of what has been taught has been forgotten, or become outdated. Our members must develop the 'habit of mind' to observe our core values in everything they do.

Sadly, society, or indeed clients, can still apply pressures that conflict with these core values. And even more sadly, some of our members either do not, or feel so pressurised that they believe they cannot, observe these core values at all times.

Our members must not be over-pressured into allowing contracts to be let that are only partly thought out, and are pregnant with risk. They should never compromise safety, honesty, integrity or professionalism in favour of price or speed.

The increasing blame culture in our society is an extremely worrying trend.

We cannot have our highly trained and skilled engineers being discouraged from advancing in their careers because of an ever-increasing personal risk profile. We cannot have our managers in the front line becoming exhausted and worn down by the fear of prosecution. If that happens, then we have lost the constructive balance of carrot and stick in our approach to safety.

By working to restore the balance by promoting a safety-aware culture in our industry, and engaging with the Health & Safety Executive and government, we can help our members manage this risk.

This is an exerpt from Masterton's address. For the full speech visit www. ice. org. uk

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