Sadly, I don't think people could name a living civil engineer, although they might be able to name a dead one.
|Thorley Lane Bridge on the M56 - yes, bridges don't magically|
appear at the click of the fingers. Image from Highways Magazine.
A regular topic of conversation in the dusty halls of the engineering institutions is how can we raise the profile of engineers in the collective mind of the public as well as how we might go about engaging with the decision makers who ultimately decide what is going to be built. I think our problem is that most of the time, we are too busy with the day job to think about promoting what we do and when something does become newsworthy, it is often because it has gone wrong. Think about the chaos earlier at the start of the year when overrunning works brought London Bridge to a standstill, or a whole 90 minutes of delays on the M5 at Bromsgrove due to a weekend closure for bridge works.
This week, we have had the Twitterati laying to CityConnect about the Leeds-Bradford Cycle Superhighway which has now made the front cover of the local paper, the Telegraph & Argus. Now of course, I have made some of my armchair pontifications about the scheme, but I am not blogging about the scheme, just that people have only become interested because of a problem and of course, the engineers are the scapegoats - not the sort of profile we want and no way for us to try and show the public what we can do.
One of the big problems we face is that we are rarely fully in control of the schemes we deliver with politicians and accountants calling the shots and our vision getting watered down by the corporate system and with guidance being applied as standards by those who don't understand what they are doing. Whether it is stupidly raising public expectations that we will be able to complete that railway work in 48 hour line closure at Christmas when we need a week, or where we make contractors keep traffic lanes open as not to inconvenience drivers when we could do a quicker and better job with a road closure or where a pure vision for a cycling scheme has us designing with one arm up our back because we cannot possible shift capacity from motors to active transport.
When I expand my question to allow people to name dead civil engineers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel will often spring to mind, although the fact that he was a workaholic who had many people killed on his projects seems to have faded from rose-tinted view of history. He was a great man of course, but the success of his projects did vary over his relatively short career and yes, he was often criticised in the press at the time. Of course, the projects he built were very much his projects and this is why he is remembered.
|Sir Joseph Bazalgette. Image by Lock & Whitfield,|
National Portrait Gallery (Creative Commons Licence)
My own civil engineering hero is the lesser know Sir Joseph Bazalgette, another workaholic and contemporary of Brunel, ended up building The Embankment in London. The project was actually a grand scale sewer scheme designed to intercept the sewers of London where they tipped into the Thames, instead sending the waste further downstream to be discharged in an area with no people at the time. Bazalgette had vision on what the scheme should do and it took him a few attempts to convince the powers that be that it should be built (it was horredously expensive). Actually, the Great Stink on 1858 finally convinced Parliament that something should be done as much as anything Bazalgette did.
I wonder what Sir Joseph would make of life in 2015, after all, we are still using the sewers under The Embankment and Transport for London will be repurposing some of the space he created for cycling with the East-West Cycle Superhighway and I wonder what he would make of how decisions are made? I am not in my business to be rich or famous, but I want to improve our built environment and I think that most of my peers have exactly the same motivation. But I do think we need to come out of our shells more and tell the public what we do and why we do it.
For the continued slating of railway engineering works, I think the engineers need to be telling people how complex the work is, how we are trying to gear up a whole supply chain to operate when everything is closed on a bank holiday and yes, expose the unrealistic deadlines they are given. For the highway maintenance people, when the Lead Member publicly criticises you on how long it takes to get a damaged road opened after a multiple pile up, politely explain that if he his administration had properly funded you, then you could have provided a better service. Designers, when your cycling scheme is systematically dissected on Twitter, perhaps it is time to become transparent and explain the parameters within which you have been forced to work.
Actually, the advice in the last paragraph probably doesn't do much for one's current or future career prospects and this is why it is vital that our engineering institutions pick up on some of this criticism and give the counter arguments. Of course, we should also admit when we have got it wrong and I know this is difficult, especially if it is unpalatable to those we are working for. It is also important to keep our vision and to record it because when we have our own Great Stink, we need to justify our position. Perhaps then, the public will realise that they undervalue us and actually, all the great people are civil engineers and well as civil engineers being great people. But, I am bound to say that aren't I?