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Stand up for the structurals

Profile David Blockley

It is an exciting time for structural engineers, says Institution of Structural Engineers President David Blockley, but they must learn to communicate - and perhaps learn to tell a few anecdotes too, he tells Diarmaid Fleming.

London's Millennium footbridge, London Eye, Swiss Re building and Glasgow's Wing Tower mean the profile of structural engineers has rarely been higher. To David Blockley, outgoing president of the UK Institution of Structural Engineers, this is not surprising. Building is a fundamental human instinct, and engineering is central to this expression.

'It is an exciting time for structural engineering, and in the UK Millennium and Lottery funding have provided great opportunities. When people want to mark a tremendous occasion in the development of the human race, they build!'

enthuses Blockley.

'In the past people built the pyramids and cathedrals. It is an absolutely fundamental human activity and engineers are absolutely fundamental to that.

It's tremendous to be part of it, but we've got to be able to communicate that excitement.'

These new structural wonders and the horrors of the World Trade Center attacks have brought a realisation that engineers, not architects, make buildings stand up and can explain why they sometimes fall down.

But for many, engineers fix photocopiers or drinks machines.

'We have to aim at the general public - this will help us with recruitment, with students, children - and we have to explain ourselves. But we need a wide set of skills to do that, which we do not all have, ' he says. 'We are not a people industry, although we are in an industry which is all about people. We tend to be very task orientated and sometimes are not very good at understanding. I think our education hasn't helped in the past, ' he adds.

Although essential, communication skills are absent from some engineers' armoury, he says. As professor and head of University of Bristol's civil engineering department, those in Blockley's charge are trained in its use. 'We work very hard with our students on their communication skills and generally they're very good, ' he says, scotching any notion that bad or shy communicators gravitate towards engineering.

In his witty and thought-provoking presidential address last October - Blockley set out his engineering stall. In it he said that like it or not, a perception exists that engineers are 'rather narrowly technical and technically narrow.'

Engineers should 'break out', he says, and work out why they are so under-appreciated. To do this, they should each ask what value they bring to a client and society in general, and then set about communicating this on a range of fronts.

Engineers must communicate with clients to inspire confidence and demonstrate value.

They should also communicate with the public to show how engineers 'make it stand up - and safely' and to children to engender a sense of wonderment in engineering and portray engineering as an exciting profession.

UK undergraduates should be encouraged to regard the industry changes sparked by Sir John Egan's Rethinking Construction report as new opportunities, says Blockley. The government should be told that chartered structural engineering expertise is needed for public safety, and should be made a legal necessity. Other professions should be convinced that engaging good engineers means adding value and saving money.

The IStructE's own leadership should get involved with the media, comment proactively on events, provide media training for all senior executives and regularly brief and invite the media to the institution, he adds. 'Put the image of the 'gentlemen's club' behind and become a dynamic force for change, ' urges Blockley.

'But we have to use all mediums available, ' he says, and that does not mean just print or broadcast media. Humour is another avenue which he says could lead to rich rewards for the profession.

In his address, Blockley announced a competition for the best humorous story - the results are at www. istructe. org.

uk/about/presidentsprize. asp - and the winning entry recounted a complex and costly street possession in central London to install an escalator. The huge escalator finally inched into place, only for it not to fit. The best engineering brains could not understand, until a sticker on the escalator saying 'High Wycombe' explained its redundancy in Oxford Street.

'There are hundreds of stories like that out there. It's not a joke, and people thought I was looking for material for after-dinner speeches which I was not. What I was looking for was amusing human-centred stories which illustrate what engineers do, ' he says.

'I know lots and lots of kids were attracted to veterinary science because of author James Herriot and TV spinoff All Creatures Great and Small. We only have to find a James Herriot for engineering, structural or civil, to do the same.' He is already considering a book to describe in an imaginative way the feats of engineers to attract wider public interest.

Other projects include developing his studies on 'biomimetics', literally mimicking biology which, put at its simplest, aims to learn from nature to change the way we do things. He is seeking funding for research to examine how complex systems like buildings or transport networks could be improved by being compared with more complex biological systems.

The challenge is to discover direct 'mappings' or correlations between biological systems which function effectively, such as humans or animals, and engineered systems such as a complex building like an airport.

Two complex systems which do not necessarily have direct mappings are the Institution of Civil Engineers and the IStructE.

He is a supporter of closer cooperation, but does not see a merger on the cards because of the different entry standards.

IStructE chartered membership is contingent on passing the notoriously tough, seven hour 'Part 3' design exam. Recent moves by the ICE to make entry easier for Incorporated engineers probably makes a marriage less likely, says Blockley.

'We're going in different directions. They are being all-inclusive and that's good, but I think you've got to pull off the trick of being a specialist and a team player at the same time.

'We want to work together and be constructive, but the Civils has to recognise that we have our specialist membership qualification which our members are fiercely proud of, and they will not allow us to give that up.

'But if the Civils were to have specialist examinations in, say, geotechnics or water management or transportation and those exams were tough professional tests like our structurals exam, then we could be the structural part of an engineering institution.'

Ultimately, he says, closer cooperation can best be fostered through joint meetings, and collaboration on issues such as the recent Tall Buildings report, produced with the ICE Buildings & Structures Board.

As he embarks on his presidential tour this month, visiting places as diverse as Barbados and New York, he says one of the main reasons for his involvement in the institution is the camaraderie of meeting other kindred spirited professionals.

'You meet people, spend a few days with them, and they become your mates, as if you'd known them for years. It's just great fun and what the institution is all about.'

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