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Future Plans Essay Engineer

Our recent publication “Planning Smarter Cities – A manifesto for addressing its fundamental challenges” considered the opportunities that technology provides to supporting improved city operations and living as well as the constraints that exist in embracing and utilizing its potential.

The following short essay, reflecting on the role of the Engineer in future cities, appeared in part on two websites recently. In this updated version, however, the intent is to examine the challenges engineers face in balancing, on one hand, the risks of the new against proven approaches and, on the other, the interests of the fee-paying client and those of the wider societies upon whom our work impacts. At the same time, these challenges can, in part, be seen to explain the lack of pace in the development of ‘smarter cities’.

During the past two decades, there has been an inexorable shift in the approach to and delivery of urban development, whether new urban quarters or regeneration of urban areas with declining social and economic indices. This has been characterised not just by the converging pattern of world demographics but by the increasing focus and level of technical (engineering) detail required of development proposals at the early feasibility and planning stages.

“Civil engineers are being called on to develop integrated (system of systems) strategies to ensure that not only movement of people and goods is efficient but also strategies for resilient power supply, management of water resources and for treating waste as a resource”

A renewed interest in infrastructure

This ‘renewed’ interest in ensuring adequate thought is given to the infrastructure systems of cities has been driven primarily by concerns about the environmental impact of urban development and a growing awareness of the need to conserve dwindling natural resources as well as the consequences of global warming. More recently, one of the important consequences of the Great Recession has been to focus much greater attention upon cost and benefit of projects and ensuring that adequate business modelling (including analysis of relevant infrastructure) is undertaken. Add to this the emerging consciousness of increasing social inequality and its consequences and the complexities of working in this space begin to emerge.

The result has been a greater emphasis placed on ensuring that the impact of urban development is more sustainable and able to deliver more responsible solutions in providing increased value to the City, its citizens as well as its various economic sectors. To achieve this, civil engineers are being called on to develop integrated (system of systems) strategies to ensure that not only movement of people and goods is efficient but also strategies for resilient power supply, management of water resources and for treating waste as a resource. And to this we can add the need to ensure cost effectiveness, public and political advocacy, and an ability to act as a lynchpin between the planning and design of projects and their execution and delivery. Part of this role, as it has existed since the industrial revolution, is to ensure that the scientific discoveries and advances in technology can be applied to the benefit of clients, municipal governments and citizens alike. Or, as their Charter more eloquently states, “…for the general advancement of Mechanical Science, and more particularly for promoting the acquisition of that species of knowledge which constitutes the profession of a Civil Engineer, being the art of directing the great sources of power in Nature for the use and convenience of man…”

Technology and data as a change driver

One of the responses to these drivers of change has been for greater attention to be given to the potency of data and information communication and technology (ICT). The engineering profession needs to break out of the silos it has gradually managed to develop over the past century. Simple examples from other industries demonstrate the benefits of whole systems thinking and integration. In this respect, ICT has an additional function in helping to link together the many strands of infrastructure that go to make up a city. The construction industry and engineering sector, however, has not been as progressive as others with regarding to innovation and technology. What is required are engineers who understand how an information and knowledge economy can benefit their solutions through a clear understanding of the business case, risks and opportunities. Equally, we need engineers who are able to grasp the more detailed technical aspects of ICT and have the ability to integrate this infrastructure with other infrastructure systems from building scale to city scale. So we have the need for engineers with a broad understanding across multiple infrastructure systems and a skills base that spans business planning and computer sciences beyond the more traditional engineering training. If engineers are unable to strive for this, it is difficult to see which other profession can and it goes someway to explaining the emergence of the ‘smarter city’.

In my recent interview with Steve Lewis, CEO of Living PlanIT (www.living-planit.com – a progressive player in the ‘smart city’ market), I asked this very question. His response was telling. In his view, the technology industry has failed to grasp the complexity of the real estate and construction industry, let alone the even greater challenges represented by cities. Rather, it has focussed on services and products instead of engaging in debate, achieving a better understanding of the numerous, inter-related layers of infrastructures (social as well as physical) and thinking about the potential solutions from the bottom-up as well as the top-down. His vision of the future encompasses many of the current professional players involved in planning, design and construction of cities but in an environment in which there is far more collaborative thinking, in shorter time-frames and with greater insight provided by technology and analysis of data.

His view is relevant for two reasons. Firstly, in terms of the implications that stem from it – that ‘Smart Cities’ are never going to be just about technology. The need for smartness and the future of cities extends beyond this narrow confine; there is the need to create ‘layers of smartness’ – and ensure that they are understood, relevant and integrated. Indeed, the word ‘smart’ is somewhat limiting in terms of the future city model that we need to aspire to; one embracing not just resource efficiency but promotion of good health, economic stability, a sense of shared community and with an ability to adapt to future challenges. In short, we need a more sophisticated and universal language. Secondly, and as importantly, it provides yet another perspective on why the ‘smart city’ revolution has not yet materialised – the profession has not managed to get its ‘act’ together.


The evolution of smart buildings

Take the example of smart buildings. Their planning and design, supported by computer-controlled and linked building environment systems, has evolved over a number of years. In terms of best practice, the improvements in building structures and environments has been significant, especially in certain aspects such as power consumption. However, the returns on investment are diminishing (the level of investment required to create an ever more efficient, low energy building can outweigh the direct benefits) and there is a need to look at other opportunities to improve building performance. To date, there has been very little implementation of product lifecycle management tools in the design, simulation, delivery and operations of buildings, which could strip significant capital costs. Equally, through improving the coordination of the virtual building models with real-time building management systems, operational costs could be likewise reduced. The enabling factor to this approach will be analysis of data and the implementation of smart ICT.

Thinking more broadly and applying similar principals at a city scale should offer even greater scope for returns on socio-economic and environmental measures. In addition, the implementation of the above will undoubtedly create new value chains in design, delivery, operations and maintenance and demand cross-industry skills which extend existing architecture and engineering disciplines in bioinformatics, materials science, nanotechnology, data sciences, and others. So with pressure to respond to global concerns, greater regulatory measures being imposed and the technology available, we really need to begin to deliver on the promises of the ‘Smart City’. For those of us who are engineers, we need to be prepared to extend ourselves beyond the current role of technical planner and purveyor of ‘mechanical science’ to one that reclaims the ‘directing the great sources of power.’

“We need to be prepared to extend ourselves beyond the current role of technical planner and purveyor of ‘mechanical science’ to one that reclaims the ‘directing the great sources of power.”

Engineers need to think differently to meet future needs

Einstein once said that “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Engineers have a key role to play in creating and maintaining sustainable communities across the planet and we have to rise to the challenges we face very quickly. Governments of both developed and developing countries are faced with the demand for more, bigger, smarter and more liveable urban settlements and yet these very same cities, where 50% of the world’s population lives (and set to rise dramatically), account for 75% of the carbon footprint of the planet. Knowing what we know today, delivering what we deliver today and using current tools and processes invites disaster. As engineers, we need to adapt our thinking, embrace advocacy and business planning, technology and computer sciences, work across wider domains and ensure that cities are truly able to meet the full needs of our future.

Andrew Comer, BSc CEng FICE FIHT, Director, Cities Group, BuroHappold Engineering


Sections of this essay were originally published in March 2016 for the ICE and in June 2016 for the IEA

We’re thrilled to present the winner of the Ohio STEM Learning Network high school essay contest. Erica Barnes is a junior at NIHF STEM High School in Akron, Ohio. We’ve published her winning essay in its entirety, but first, we’ll let her introduce herself to the network:

Meet Erica Barnes an 11th grader at National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM High School in Akron and the high school winner of our essay contest

Erica: Since the 5th grade, when my middle school career began, I have had an interest in becoming an engineer. From my first engineering class, where we built Rube Goldberg machines and were introduced to the Engineering Design Process, I was hooked. Building and designing came naturally to me; the concept of being able to create entire cities was a dream that I now knew was possible for me. Learning about the types of engineering led me to find Civil Engineering. Moving into high school and becoming more college and career focused, I began to find out just what it takes to become a Civil Engineer. When I graduate, I hope to study Civil Engineering at a top university, eventually moving on to earn my Master’s degree in Urban Planning. My overall career goal is to design and improve cities and urban areas using sustainable practices to create an environment that can be enjoyed by all.

Read her winning essay below:

Imagine being in a class where it feels like everyone seems to understand the material: except you. This is my case when it comes to math, calculus especially. As someone who wants to become an engineer, every version of math is crucial for me to grasp to become successful in my future. In a school where college is highly promoted, and coming from education-oriented parents, continuing my education is important to succeed in life. Seems typical, but what happens when you struggle with the very thing you want to study?

Every week is a new chapter, new homework, new quizzes, and the dreaded test. Here I am, faced with this just like every other student. I take out my notebook, follow along, ask questions, albeit more than everyone else, and it makes sense. Then comes the test. I feel solidarity with my friends going into it, surrounded by choruses of “I’m going to fail” and “I don’t know anything”. During the test I become enclosed in my own world of struggle, trying to make sense of the notes that were once so clear. I periodically look around to see if anyone else is outwardly showing the internal panic I feel, but all is calm. Every once in a while, I’ll share a disappointed head nod with a classmate about a particularly hard question; we then both continue to tread through the field of symbols, letters, and numbers that are on the test.

The tests are finally graded and returned. Friends that seemed to struggle with you, claiming to know nothing, receive high B’s and A’s, a sea of 90 and above percent. I receive my paper, turned face down to avoid other’s eyes. Turning it over, I take in the numerous red slashes, circling of mistakes and question marks. I go through the test, keeping up a happy face, writing down the correct answers and comparing with friends’ papers. I remain light on the outside, but the all too familiar feeling of failure is in full effect. 80 is the golden number, the achievement of mastery that is held highly to all STEM students. Seeing anything less is an immediate blow to both your grade and self-esteem. You don’t want to look dumb or fall behind because the reflection of that is unknown. Will you have the same impression on colleges, or get the same opportunities? How could I be trying to achieve this degree when I can’t even be average in high school?

These thoughts have lead me to ask what I really want for myself. I know that I want to pursue engineering because I still have a passion for it despite my difficulties. I want to be able to design and create a world that improves life for generations. I want to be a role model and inspire young, black girls who enjoy science and want to build and expand their knowledge. I want them to look at my success and believe that they can achieve anything, despite the circumstances or odds stacked against them. It is for these girls that I try to take each math test in stride. It is for these girls that I continue to pick myself back up and persevere. I have realized that my scores and numbers do not define who I am or my true intelligence. High school tests cannot measure the love I have for my friends and family, the values I hold close, my ideas and creativity that are waiting to be expressed. I continue to march on stronger than ever because I believe in myself: no class or test will ever tell me otherwise.

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