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Centre for Digital Built Britain

Guest Blog: Professor Lord Robert Mair reflects on the achievements of civil engineering

As his presidential year for the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) draws to a close, Professor Lord Robert Mair, head of the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction at the University of Cambridge, sets his sights on the role of civil engineering to help address global challenges in the digital age.

I see a great and vibrant future for infrastructure and for the lives of every person on this planet, regardless of who they are or where they were born. But this future requires civil engineers to transform themselves; how they think and how they act."

Becoming the President of the ICE in its bicentenary year invited reflection on the remarkable achievements of civil engineers from our past. It also stirred me to look ahead to the new horizons for engineers of today.

The theme of my presidency has been ‘transforming infrastructure, transforming lives – building on 200 years’. Innovation has been central to the successes of engineers who have triumphed over the challenges of the past and it continues to be at the heart of the profession that creates essential infrastructure and buildings that transform communities, cities and countries.  

That said, the civil engineer of the future has a multitude of international challenges to step up to. Globally, one in eight people lives in extreme poverty. Nearly 800 million people still suffer from hunger. Sixty million children of primary school age are out of school, and around 750 million adults are unable to read. People still use unclean water sources, and over 2 billion are without improved sanitation. 

There are massive global improvements to be made and civil engineers have the tools to tackle these challenges. This month (October) the ICE hosted the Global Engineering Congress which saw an unprecedented gathering of global engineering leaders come together to pool knowledge on how civil engineers can tackle UN sustainable development goals and create an agenda – and momentum – for change.

For me, the most exciting outcome of the advent of new technology is the opportunity to create ‘smart infrastructure’. Civil engineers are presently in a digital revolution of innovation and transformation. The engineers of the future can and must now build ‘smart’. 

They should build assets that do not just stand and wait for renovations and maintenance, but tell us what they require and when: assets that live. Historically, civil engineers have built without fully understanding their creations. But now we are beginning to understand. Through the use of new tools such as fibre-optic strain measurement and wireless sensor networks, we can start to build living assets and to understand truly how infrastructure performs throughout its entire life cycle. 

Sensors in gas turbine aero engines currently tell Rolls-Royce engineers exactly how the engines are performing in real time, wherever in the world they are flying. Infrastructure can be equally ‘smart’. Innovative wireless sensor technologies, the ‘internet of things’ and data analytics are vital ingredients to the future of infrastructure. In this era of rapid digital transformation, the potential of ‘big data’ must be exploited. Civil engineers must treat data as a resource and recognise its huge value in improving the design, development and management of infrastructure – and of future smart cities.  

New sensor technologies in the built environment can collect huge amounts of data. If this data is curated well it can be used to revolutionise the construction process by making it more efficient, reducing costs and enabling civil engineers to truly understand the infrastructure they create. Importantly, it can also help civil engineers manage ageing infrastructure, increase capacity and secure its longevity.

The civil engineer of the future has the tools to innovate and transform and these can help solve broader challenges of the twenty-first century. My profession’s predecessors saw poverty, high mortality rates, stagnant economies and growing populations, and proposed innovative ways in which infrastructure could transform lives. The civil engineers of the future must do the same. 

There is much to gain. I see a great and vibrant future for the profession. I see a great and vibrant future for infrastructure and for the lives of every person on this planet, regardless of who they are or where they were born. But this future requires civil engineers to transform themselves; how they think and how they act. Agile civil engineers are needed – engineers who are plugged into the very latest technical developments, who collaborate with colleagues across disciplines and are responsive to the changing needs of the public. Civil engineers need to be new and fast, not old and slow.

Above all the profession needs to be ambitious and bold. There are huge science and technology developments to explore and exploit. Civil engineers have 200 years of innovation behind them, innovation that came from fearlessness. They must be fearless once more. As William Faulkner said, ‘you cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore’.

Contact: Professor Lord Robert Mair