Prince Charles’ lecture at the ICE this week was a rare event and one that was, without doubt, designed to ruffle a few feathers.
But that is, after all, HRH’s way - and his role as an independent yet highly informed and influential observer. His views should thus be discussed - and perhaps even acted upon.
“We have been all too willing to direct and use the power of nature for our own ends, with scant regard for the long-term consequences of our actions,” he said, drawing on the wording of the ICE’s historic 1828 Royal Charter.
“I would urge you to consider carefully whether those words in your Charter are still as relevant today as they were in the 19th century,” he added. “Perhaps it is time to revise them for the task ahead.”
“The glory of our Victorian forebears has created an environment in which new ways of working remain under-embraced”
Make no mistake, the over-riding task ahead for Prince Charles is about tackling climate change, reducing global consumption and embedding more sustainable thinking across every aspect of society. A task which, he says, puts civil engineers firmly on the front line.
Yet what is clear is that - from his perspective - civil engineers are still guilty of living in the past when it comes to embracing this particular task. While we are alive to the sustainable issue, when it comes to delivering the vital infrastructure needed we remain rooted in the carbon intensive world of concrete, steel and glass.
It is a fair point. There is without doubt an innate conservatism when it comes to designing, constructing and maintaining public and private infrastructure. The glory of our Victorian forebears has created an environment in which innovation and new ways of working remain under-embraced.
But when it comes to sustainability, many in the industry will argue loudly that we have surely gone beyond a wake-up call, to now lead the world with our thinking around sustainable infrastructure, environmental and social responsibility and waste reduction.
For evidence, they might say, look to London’s plans for the 2012 Olympic Games - a ground-breaking project that was noticeably absent from Prince Charles’ thoughts last week.
For evidence look to the hundreds of clients, firms and projects being submitted for Ceequal accreditation each month. And look to the way in which British engineering firms are exporting and influencing sustainable ideas around the world to the Middle East, China, the Far East and Africa.
So clearly, either these messages are not getting through or we are still not doing enough. Probably both. And that must change because, as Prince Charles highlights, the current economic and social paradigm is not a temporary economic bubble. The need for a sustainable, affordable future is now the norm.
The reality is that we owe our position of social influence largely to the achievements of our Victorian engineering heroes. Retaining this position in the next century will mean not only embracing a sustainable future but also leading society through a period of substantial change.
- Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor