At last Alex, I had begun to give up hope. Your article touches on something fundamental that should have been debated a long time ago.
What do the following projects have in common? The Channel Tunnel, the M3 at Twyford Down, HS2, Heathrow’s third runway, the Severn Barrage, nuclear power, wind farms, a new reservoir in Oxfordshire: what do they have in common? The answer is, of course, highly questionable justifications.
Into the arenas where such schemes are contested, most engineers, being people with a preference for the analytical methodologies, (which might be called reactionary positivism by the ungenerous), would naturally align themselves with the schools of meticulous accountancy and intricate mathematics. Such people are known to have rounded shoulders and they are to be seen despondently shuffling from job to job, begging for a chance to build something. They are all, very, very boring.
Next in this little talent show, we have the architects and planners. Probably not wearing socks, or a collar, or sleeves to his jacket, our stereotype is, by virtue of his appearance, an artistic spirit. He is a champion of the supremacy of intuition in decision making and he is therefore well-qualified to speak about all those benefits that no-one has yet managed to define, in words or with numbers.
The panel, awarding the financial prizes, consists of celebs who have got themselves elected, or people who have got elected and then become celebs. The audience, being the rest of society, is quite happy to scream its delight in going with the intuitive decision of the panel. What do we want? Drama’s what we want! And when do we want it? Etc.
Let’s face it, the contest has little to commend it. The positivist will only recognise the benefit he can measure, and cheerfully ignores all the vast ‘rest’ of the universe. A typical outcome of this approach being the current lack-of-a-transport system in the UK. On the other hand, the intuitive guesswork of the divergent thinker often only produces a comic result. Into this bracket might be lumped HS2, Milton Keynes and the two fingered symbol over the crossing of the Wear.
Surely we - that’s us, the people who build these things - ought to start involving ourselves in the philosophies that underlie them; no-one else seems to be doing the job, so why not us? We need to open our minds to engage in public debate: raising awareness of the issues. For example, what should the nation’s priorities be? Should we be concentrating on energy waste in preference to building power stations? Should we be concentrating on e-commerce and transportation, before building roads and railways?
How about the NCE taking the lead?
How about a dedicated column or blog?
But for goodness sake, let’s junk the grey suits and the respectable terminology.
Here’s a thought for an initial topic: out of all the projects you’ve worked on, and all you have you done, what has been of the greatest benefit to society and why? Not just in money, but in every way. Was it that £500 million water supply system in Asia, now lining the pockets of a bent politician, or was it, in reality, some small improvement you made in a design process. Or maybe it was nothing to do with engineering at all; now that would be really revealing.