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President for a new millennium

Overseas brief; Civil engineers should lead the way in promoting urban regeneration and sustainable wealth creation, incoming ICE president Professor George Fleming tells Will Howie

The Scots have made a considerable contribution to civil engineering in Britain over the last two centuries - and to the Institution of Civil Engineers, since its first president, Thomas Telford, nearly 100 years ago. The incoming president, 55-year-old Professor George Fleming, is yet another. Not only that, he joins the roll of recent presidents, such as Alastair Paterson and Sir William Francis, who received their civil engineering education at Glasgow's Royal Technical College - in Fleming's case just as it was transforming itself into Strathclyde University.

Unlike a fair number of Scottish engineers - perhaps most of them - Fleming did not forsake his native heath in search of fame or even fortune, apart from a short stay in the United States, where he took a somewhat unusual PhD split between Strathclyde and Stanford University in California. Fleming has remained loyal to Glasgow where he was born. He is now a professor at his old university as well as holding a clutch of other appointments and consultancies.

If I add that the CV I was given stretches to 23 pages (and that, I am told, is the short version) his life has been a busy one, and still is. Apart from the obvious teaching, research and administrative duties of academic life, Fleming has contributed to 15 books and has more than 200 publications to his name in journals, keynote addresses, conference papers, and reports.

More unusually, he has produced four video documentaries and a permanent exhibition of civil engineering in Scotland.

In his spare time Fleming farms in Argyll.

How did all this start? It might not be too fanciful to say that it began at birth. For Fleming was brought up along the Forth & Clyde canal at Knightswood near Grascadden. He says: 'My view of those days is romanticised. In my youth, it was like growing up in the countryside and we did all those things boys do around water - fishing, collecting newts and frog spawn and getting into trouble for building fires along the canal banks.'

Did a boyhood beside the canal, and probably in it, father the hydrologist and water resources engineer he later became? Or was it the other way round - did the engineer romanticise his boyhood, as he hints, after his life had taken the course it did? Perhaps, for Fleming has more than the look of a Highlander about him and maybe a touch of Highland fantasy.

This is, of course, no more than conjecture, but can it be no more than chance that one of the high spots in Fleming's presidential year will be the Millennium Link project and the conference on it next June? The project is none other than the reviving of the Forth & Clyde canal of his boyhood recollection. It is easy to be carried away by such poetic fancies, but lowland realism is not to be easily bewildered.

'The ASCE and ICE used to meet every three years for a conference,' says Fleming, 'but that practice slowly disappeared. When I suggested that it should be revived and that the Millennium Link was a suitable topic, the idea fell on receptive ears - it is a project to capture everyone's imagination.'

So chance and Highland fantasy had nothing to do with it. The ability to see an opportunity and take it was what was needed and that is what Fleming has. In these unceremonious days, he might be called a mover and shaker.

Will he move and shake the Institution? It is not an organisation that can be moved readily, but Fleming's notions of what civil engineers are for and, more importantly, what they are likely to be doing in the next 20 or 30 years, are not entirely in the mainstream.

As he puts it: 'Initially, I was intrigued by buildings like skyscrapers but once I understood how simply they were constructed, I wanted to explore much more complex issues such as the effects of floods and droughts on soil erosion. There was so little known about them.

'Now, old-fashioned engineers like me are still intrigued by skyscrapers and such monuments, and it is true that engineers have been controlling floods and irrigating deserts for decades.'

Fleming has a powerful sense of society and the civil engineer's place in it. To Fleming and, no doubt, to others of his generation, civil engineers will no longer construct something, get paid, then move on and build something else. They will be actively engaged in regeneration, recycling and sustainability and these will be no more mere buzzwords or slogans. They will be tangible aims.

One of Fleming's professional interests is extremely basic - the soil. To be fanciful again, this could be traced back to boyhood holidays in the Argyll farmland where he still goes whenever he can. Most of us know a bit about soil mechanics, but Fleming sees it differently. He feels the soil in the way that a farmer does and he runs it through his fingers like a gardener.

A good example of this is his involvement in the Glasgow Garden Festival about 10 years ago. The Clyde has always been an awkward river and it had been about 18 inches deep downstream from the city when it was surveyed by James Watt around 200 years ago. Repeated dredging and training had made the river navigable up to the Broomilaw not far from the city centre. With the Industrial Revolution, the Clyde became one of the leading shipbuilding centres in the world and 'Clyde-built' became a hallmark of quality.

These last 50 years have seen the end of that and Glasgow's shipyards and docks have fallen silent and derelict. The promotion of the Garden Festival was one of the early signs that Glasgow was picking itself up and its regeneration beginning. I can remember George driving me around Glasgow about then, proudly pointing out how commercial properties in the town centre were being transformed into elegant flats, presumably for local yuppies. He also explained the work he was doing on the river. The festival site was on derelict docks. That is where Fleming came in for, by the late 1980s, he knew more about the Clyde than almost anyone. He was the man on the spot.

As it happened, for his PhD thesis back in the late 1960s, he had studied the Clyde and its estuary to find out how water and the sediments in river basins responded to change in land use. Even earlier, while still an undergraduate, he had carried out a research project on regional flood frequency in the Clyde basin. These researches led him to consider the problems of the disposal of waste, and to a six year study of land management practices and how they affected the sustainability of the Clyde.

As he pondered these problems, Fleming was struck by the fact that the dredgings from the river bottom were taken out to sea and dumped and had been for about a century. But these materials had come downstream from the country districts beyond Glasgow, admittedly with residues from the industrial belt among them, and Fleming realised that they could be recovered and reused. He showed that the dredged material could be dried out and treated to deal with heavy metals and other impurities. Then various sediments were mixed together - the result being a nutrient-rich topsoil.

Fleming used these materials for the topsoil of the festival site. As he says in his dry way, 'none of the visitors realised that they were walking on the bottom of a river'. The festival, of course, had only a short life but its 'garden of innovation' survived as the curiously named Landlab - a concept introduced by Fleming in which the surface soil is used to study regeneration and self-renewing techniques.

As an indication of his entrepreneurial qualities, which are far from negligible, Fleming made sure that the dredged soil technology was licensed to a local firm which markets the material as 'ClydeSoil'. The same materials have proved to be useful for making bricks and Fleming's fertile mind is probing how to use silted up sites in other rivers as far afield as Hong Kong and Aswan. The only thing certain about the investigations his assistants are making in these places is that they will come up with something worthwhile.

If none of this sounds much like engineering as we used to know it, none of it would happen without engineering knowledge and the capacity to apply it. In Fleming's words, 'the innovation of the civil engineer to regenerate derelict land using other waste resources is a theme which must become core thinking of every civil engineer'. Regeneration, recycling and sustainability are once again his watchwords.

Looking ahead, Fleming wants to balance the use of natural resources against their depletion or what he calls their deterioration. He thinks that is the biggest issue facing civil engineering. 'If we are to continue to be the engine of wealth creation,' he says, 'we must become the engine of sustainable change.'

The first of these contentions is the more interesting of the two. Fleming points out, quoting Martin Barnes, that the true engine of change in the industrial revolution was the construction of the canal system. Advocates of the steam engine might dispute that, but without the ready movement of goods and raw materials, steam engines would have been useless and the factory system unnecessary.

So Barnes may well have a point which was to be reinforced later when the railway network was constructed.

The key to Fleming's thinking in this matter is his hatred of poverty and his desire to remove it. And by poverty he does not mean only the lack of material things. He says: 'It also refers to being poor in skill, poor in language, unproductiveness and lack of communication.' These are comments with which most politicians would agree, but Fleming is not looking for political solutions to poverty.

His engine of wealth creation - that is civil engineering in his all- embracing definition of the profession - is meant to pile up money not for its own sake but to remove poverty throughout society and, if possible, throughout the world.

Though he has never said so, as far as I know, I think he would approve of his fellow Scot, the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who declared that a rich man should give away all his wealth for the benefit of others. Most of Carnegie's money went to life-enhancing causes like public libraries and support for higher education. I am sure that Fleming would approve of that. Has he, perhaps, a Presbyterian conscience?

Turning to his second contention - the need for an engine of sustainable change - he tries to practise what he preaches. In Bombay, he saw half a million people sifting through the solid waste generated by the 28M who live there.

That experience leads him to say: 'They may be classed as living in poverty but with innovation and resourcefulness and with energy not completely devoid of despair they have built a community to enable them to sustain their families. The task facing civil engineering is how to enable them and many others in that situation to take a step further and build on that innovation'.

The aim is a noble one, but the means of achieving it are simple - regeneration, recycling, sustainability. Recycling can be one way out of poverty; it is also one of the routes to sustainability. Fleming takes the fairly primitive lesson of Bombay, applies it to a modern, sophisticated society such as Britain and turns his mind to the management of solid waste. He lists some simple examples of how the construction industry can present itself as the 'profession of sustainable change' as he claims it is.

One of these seems unlikely at first: recycling quarry dust, forestry cuttings, paper mill sludge, fish farming by-products and sewage sludge to produce soil top dressing. Another is to combine waste, tar, asphalt, with rubber from used tyres and lightweight aggregate to produce surfaces for sportsfields, pavements and motorway hard shoulders.

Perhaps none of that is as romantic as building skyscrapers but it might fit the future every bit as well. The job of the civil engineer that Fleming sees is to unhook human potential. He might not shake the institution, but he will give young engineers plenty to think about, and that might be enough.

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