Institute of Civil Engineers: uniting engineering for sustainable development

By Olivia Minnock
Following October’s Global Engineering Congress 2018, Professor Lord Robert Mair, President of ICE, discusses what engineerin...

Following October’s Global Engineering Congress 2018, Professor Lord Robert Mair, President of ICE, discusses what engineering can do to support energy efficiency, combat climate change and align with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.


Can you tell us about your engineering experience and why climate change is so important to you?

Throughout my career, both in industry and in academia, I have looked at the challenges facing society and tried to help find solutions, ultimately to meet people’s needs. Civil engineering provides many of the things people need every day, such as clean water and energy supplies. The things that we build provide the foundations for development throughout the world. I assumed the role of President at ICE to support the continued transformation of infrastructure and of people’s lives.

Having spent many years leading academic research, it was impossible to ignore the weight of scientific evidence that climate change is taking place. It will have an unprecedented impact on people, including some of the most vulnerable communities in the world.

Civil engineering can deliver practical solutions to tackling climate change, such as ensuring resilient and clean energy generation and building sustainable cities.


How does ICE’s work support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?

As the professional membership body for the civil engineering profession – with over 92,000 members around the world – our role is quite simply to support civil engineers and engineering technicians to be the best they can be.

Sustainable development is the fundamental challenge facing our generation, and the engineering profession has a clear role to play. Engineering and infrastructure underpin society, and the decisions we make as a profession will help to determine society’s future.

ICE is focusing on the five UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) where engineers can make the most immediate impact: clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; industry, innovation and infrastructure; sustainable cities and communities; and climate action.

I see our role as threefold: we must inspire, that is, engage the profession on how engineering contributes to sustainable development; we must support engineers with the skills and evidence to help create change; and we must act to translate the SDGs into an engineering-specific plan on how we as a profession can reach these goals.


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Are there any other SDGs ICE can support, perhaps less directly, such as health and wellbeing or gender equality?

The SDGs are interlinked and interdependent. By helping engineers to deliver progress on the SDGs most obviously relevant to our profession, we will also lay the foundation for progress across all the goals. Infrastructure provision enables the achievement of social and economic goals, leading to better quality of life and reduced inequality.

Regarding education and gender equality specifically, engineers have to tackle these issues within the context of our profession. It’s no secret that engineering could be more diverse, and this starts at a very young age in early education. I’m therefore especially proud of ICE’s work with the UK Government’s Year of Engineering campaign, the WISE Campaign and the Women’s Engineering Society to help inspire the next generation, especially young women and other under-represented groups, to join the profession and make a difference.


Is it important to form partnerships in order to reach ICE’s ambitious goals?

ICE will be working with like-minded partners from across the world to create an engineering sustainability development route-map. The input from Global Engineering Congress delegates will help to set out a pathway to deliver real change against the UN’s SDGs. Over the next two years, we will build a practical plan that will enable the global engineering profession to act collectively.


With the aims of spurring practical action on climate change, water, energy, infrastructure and city design, why was it important to have such a variety of attendees at the 2018 Global Engineering Congress?


Sustainable development is ultimately a global challenge, and the challenges that we are working on, such as climate change, do not stop at national borders. We see it as essential to bring the global engineering community together – to share experience, as well as ensuring we as a profession are united in the same direction.

The congress this year featured a special cities stream, in partnership with 100 Resilient Cities, as cities are at the heart of many of the challenges facing society. For example, cities account for between 60 and 80% of the energy consumed on earth but occupy just 3% of the land. By 2030, 60% of the world’s population will be in urban areas but already 800mn live in slum conditions.


How important was technology at this year’s congress?

Technology and innovation in engineering are essential for tackling the UN’s SDGs, increasing the capabilities of industries and prompting the development of new skills. These will lead to better practical solutions for the issues we face today.

The Global Engineering Congress offered multiple sessions dedicated to exploring the role of technology, including smart transportation, robotics and artificial intelligence and digital connectivity.


Do you think the engineering community is taking climate change as seriously as it should?

Absolutely, but I believe there are two challenges. The first is dealing with the sense of scale – working on major infrastructure projects such as Thames Tideaway, then its relatively straightforward to understand the impact such a project will have on sanitation in London. The trickier area is smaller scale projects, the real ‘bread and butter’ of civil engineering. Take the decision to use a green roof on a building project. Such a decision will make a difference to the environmental impact of that building, but it’s when that decision is made in combination with thousands of others that we see the real potential.

The second challenge is measurement, as the quality of contribution matters as much as quantity. We know from our own research that 90% of engineers want to be able to clearly measure the impact of projects on sustainable development, but only a third of firms in the sector feel that they are able to do so right now. Discussing how we measure progress and what that data means for future engineering projects was a highlight of GEC.


This feature first appeared in the November issue of Energy Digital magazine. 


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