Infrastructure Outlook: The Age of the Engineer
Several years ago, I was talking to a friend who said, “Bill, if mankind is going to be around in 250 years, it will be because engineers make it so.” It was an intriguing concept.
Certainly, our planet is being asked to support an ever-growing human population with a finite amount of available resources—resources become even more stretched as large parts of the globe industrialize. Although industrialization is raising billions from poverty, it also dramatically increases the demand and use of natural resources.
Regardless of opinions on the causes, there’s no doubt that short- and long-term climate variations are now part of today’s world. Too much or too little water, extreme heat and cold, and powerful storms are examples of natural phenomena that pose an even greater threat to human life. I like to remind people that our planet hasn’t always been kind to human life, and just 10,000 years ago much of North America was under a mile of ice.
Furthermore, in the developed world, we depend on infrastructure to support our quality of life. We count on power and water to flow, on the ability to communicate across continents at a moment’s notice, on our transportation systems to support commerce and maintain full access to goods and materials, and on the opportunity to live in safety and comfort. We depend on modern infrastructure not just for our quality of life, but to support life itself.
In response to the challenges of limited resources, climate variation and the demands of modern society, many will turn to engineers. Whenever a drought hits, there arises a predictable clamor for improved water transfer and storage. When Superstorm Sandy struck the Northeast two years ago, the calls for enhanced flood protection were immediate. The solution for population growth isn’t necessarily urban sprawl, but effective, energy-efficient housing. In nearly every case, engineers are tasked with solving the world’s infrastructure and natural-resource challenges.
My friend was right: If the human race is to survive for another 250 years, we engineers need to make it so. Therefore, I believe we are entering the “Age of the Engineer.” It’s a time when society will count on its “best and brightest” to develop solutions to sustain and enhance life in an ever-changing, often-dangerous environment. And it’s a time when engineers must use creativity, ingenuity and intellect to stretch scarce resources to provide maximum results.
I’m confident we can rise to the challenge, but we won’t succeed without a concerted effort. First, our educational system must support math and science education—for boys and girls. There’s growing recognition of the need to start such support as early as middle school, and I applaud initiatives such as the ACE Mentor Program that foster interest in high-school students for the construction and design fields.
The A/E/C industry needs to make sure it’s grooming the next generation of leaders. We are a hardworking profession, and I don’t feel bad when asking for diligence and dedication. But we can’t ask for dedication and hard work if we don’t take active and personal interests in the careers of our team members. As leaders, we have to develop and maintain the interest in engineering as a profession. And again, we have to do it for men and women—we’ll never succeed if only half the population sees engineering as a viable and inviting career.
We also need to maintain a robust private sector of engineering and construction firms. Most infrastructure is government-owned, so governments play an active role in the design, construction and maintenance of critical infrastructure. However, it has been proven time and again that the private sector brings the innovation, efficiency and collaboration that drives down costs and improves project quality. We must resist efforts to insource more than the minimum inhouse staffing needed by project owners.
Concerning our legal system, I’ll admit to bias (considering my career as an engineer). But frivolous lawsuits, a bias toward litigation instead of engagement, and unrealistic expectations of perfection are choking our ability to innovate and threatening the future of our businesses.
Finally, we need financial support for infrastructure. It’s ironic that what makes us so good—the ability to design for safety and long-lived projects—also is used against the call for increased funding. It’s easy to see reports of thousands of deficient bridges and say, “I don’t see any falling down today. You are exaggerating the threat.”
Yet infrastructure degradation is a continual activity, creeping up and then affecting suddenly in a bridge collapse, a power blackout, or a pipe burst and sewage overflow. Complacency is a killer, and we can’t assume that our infrastructure will last forever.
The future is challenging, but the Age of the Engineer is here. With the proper support and continued dedication of our legion of talented and dedicated practitioners, we will secure mankind’s living conditions for years to come.