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The need to persuade

Comment

It is a given that modern civil engineers have the solutions necessary to solve the UK's 21st century infrastructure problems. That is, as they say, what engineers do.

The real challenge facing the profession, and perhaps the real failing, is to work out how to put these solutions into practice - to convince the public and government that they are sensible, affordable and sustainable.

There is clearly a great need for engineering. Public infrastructure is pretty much at crisis point in the UK, from transport to energy to water supply to waste management. The ICE's State of the Nation report should make for uncomfortable reading in Westminster.

Massive investment is required to defend the nation from flooding, to safeguard the nation's energy supply, to provide the nation with reliable water supplies, to handle the nation's waste mountain and to underpin the nation's road, rail, air and water transport systems.

Yet despite years of such warnings little has changed.

Why?

The greatest hindrance to meeting the infrastructure challenge (apart, obviously, from the huge amounts of money it is going to cost) is engineering's failure to think in terms of real impact on real lives. The failure specifically to grasp and explain how each of the problems and solutions impacts upon the public.

It is perhaps the result of our desire for professional competence. Over the past century or so we have striven towards technical engineering excellence, which has driven the profession towards a highly disciplined, problem-solving structure.

Engineers' training and experience lends itself more to dealing with quantitative rather that the qualitative or subjective.

While we are learning to think differently with the introduction of more holistic, spatial planning and taking the whole concept of sustainability seriously, the reality is that discipline silos and individual specialisms still tend to dominate.

Water engineers focus on water needs, transport engineers focus on transport needs and energy needs are tackled by energy specialists. Few focus on the overarching needs of society, the public and government.

This view is changing slowly and this week's State of the Nation continues to help engineering break out and seep into the public consciousness. But the change needs to accelerate if civil engineers are to inuence public investment decisions.

The ICE's call for an increase in effluent reuse as a means to tackle the UK's water supply problems is a good example.

It would also appear to make good sense. But the challenge goes beyond simply assuring the public that it is safe.

The real concern for the public stems from the thought of drinking reused efuent.

The civil engineering challenge is not so much can it be done technically, but can the public be persuaded to accept it.

The same thinking applies to waste management. Incineration may be a technical solution that harnesses the energy in waste while simultaneously disposing of it. But the public's concern is not 'can it be done?' but rather 'is it safe?'. And across the board of infrastructure we see similar tales of woe as sensible engineering solutions struggle to win public or government understanding or support.

So while few would disagree that civil engineers have the skills and solutions to transform our public infrastructure, and take us forward, getting things done requires more, different thinking.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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