How should the profession advance civil engineering technology into the third millennium? asks Professor Tony Ridley in the ICE's first Brunel lecture. By concerning itself less with technology for its own sake and more with the business and social context which creates the need for any advance, is the - perhaps surprising - answer.
Just as the BBC has taken its Reith lectures on the road, the chair of Imperial College's civil engineering department will be taking his message on a global tour. The lecture's debut will be in London on 7 July*, before Ridley moves on to Singapore on 24 August, Hong Kong on the 26th, Sydney on 6 September, Auckland on the 13th and New Delhi on 2 November.
The ICE past president and former London Underground chief executive will also speak in Melbourne, Washington and Moscow.
Talking to NCE earlier this week, Ridley said that too much civil engineering research and development was undertaken by 'ivory tower' academics with little thought of how advances should be applied. The complaint that British civil engineering does not invest enough in R&D is 'facile', he claims. The real problem is the failure to marry R&D with the needs of society and business.
The cause of this mismatch is clear to Ridley. 'I have been appalled by the disdain that academics have for those in industry,' he says. 'It is matched only by disdain that people in industry have for academics.'
His lecture proposes a solution: 'Industry would be better served if it sought out good and relevant research more positively and if it developed more partnerships. Thereafter, industry and academia together should treat the task of taking research into practice as a business process to which the disciplines of good project management can, and should, be applied . . . I do not believe that the academic can be expected, except in rare cases, to be in the lead.'
Expanding on the theme, he adds: 'Technological change is a complex process which must be managed all the way from concept to the marketplace [by technologists]. Technological knowledge is cumulative and grows in path dependent ways. Technology itself rarely has an impact when used in isolation. It may be implemented quickly, but often only over a long period.'
He also points out that: 'The essence of good engineering is problem solving. The engineer's solution could be to provide a piece of hardware, but it could also be a policy.'
Talking specifically about the engineer's role in sustainability, Ridley says: 'The particular role of the engineer will be to design sustainability and to present options for better achievement of sustainability.
'Engineers will not just passively present options from the very worst upwards. They must increasingly be sufficiently attuned to issues of sustainability and acceptability that the bad options are not offered at all . . .
'There is an important role for engineers and scientists to help formulate reasonable policies and educate the public as to why those policies are reasonable and necessary. This will enable them to gain or regain the public's confidence in political decisions that are based on technical concepts or to identify specific infrastructure solutions that conform with policy objectives.'
He stressed that all these factors, as well as others, served to underline why it is so important to take a broad view of R&D and civil engineering in general.
For those who complain that developing expertise in, say, law or finance, will take their eye off the technological ball, Ridley says: 'Well educated civil engineers are best placed to provide leadership in work associated with the built and natural environment. But to be leaders, civil engineers must develop an understanding of the wider context in which their work takes place. As a civil engineer, you must ask yourself if you want to spend your life working for lawyers and accountants or - by developing a breadth of knowledge - have them working for you.'
*The London lecture will be held at One Great George Street. Free tickets are available from the ICE's International Affairs department. Tel (0171) 665 2161 or via firstname.lastname@example.org