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Telling our stories better

Sara Thiam

We must improve how we communicate what civil engineering is all about.

The importance of civil engineers wasn’t lost on New Orleans boy and chief executive of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, David Grevemberg, when he launched ICE Scotland’s new Glasgow 2014 map and teaching resource last month (NCE 19 June), but it got me thinking about how much more we need to do to raise the profile of the profession with the public and young people.

Part of the issue is that people only realise the importance of infrastructure when it fails, as in New Orleans in 2005, where a storm surge caused breaches in the levees, precipitating the worst engineering disaster in the history of the US.

The other issue we face in engaging with the public is that they often take access to water, sanitation, electricity and transport for granted. The reality of the developing world, where such infrastructure barely exists in many rural areas, is completely unknown to many, so it simply isn’t valued.

High profile events like the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games are a great hook to tell our story and highlight the need for civil engineers. At the ICE, we maximise these and other awareness-raising opportunities wherever we can, but we could all do more to showcase excellence to those outside the profession - after all, civil engineers are on the front line in dealing with many of the world’s major challenges.

In researching our map, I was struck time and time again by the understated, humble “that’s just what we do” approach of our members in telling the story of the complex challenges they have overcome. In a recent BBC documentary on the 30m Kelpies sculptures, the person raving about the contribution of the engineers was the artist - not the engineers! In putting the map together, the information engineers chose to highlight was heavily focused on figures and numbers, rather than their role in making it happen. Getting to the real story - the story that could inspire the next generation - required further probing.

The sheer diversity of challenges thrown up by each new job is a major selling point, but we need to get better at telling our stories. Interpersonal skills and communication are key professional attributes for ICE members for a reason. Every professional can cite examples of where communication - or lack of it - has made the difference between success and failure in projects.

I urge all our members to stop and think about what they are involved in. Is there a story you could tell that might be of interest in the local community? Could you devise an activity around it for local schoolchildren? What did you do today that made a difference to people’s lives? Framing your contribution in terms of the outcomes for the communities affected, such as reduced journey times or protection from flooding, always helps.

Civil engineers really are shaping a better world, so let’s all spread the word!

  • See the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games map at: www.ice.org.uk/Scotland. Copies are available from beth.montgomery@ice.org.uk
  • Sara Thiam is director of ICE Scotland

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