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From the Editor: The Vocabulary and Eras Change, But Smart Engineering Is Timeless

Robert Schickel on June 26, 2019 - in Articles, Column

Thousands of words are added to the dictionary every year. Some are “made-up” words added because they’re often used, like “buzzy” or “guac.” Some are old words with new definitions, such as “cloud” and “footprint.” Other words have even changed from nouns to verbs, as in “friend” and “text.” Some are new because we needed them, including “airplane mode” or “page view.”

The language used in the engineering design world today is almost completely different from the language I learned in college and during much of my career as a civil engineer. Of course, all the language about computers and software has been developing since my first experiences with punch cards and mainframes. Beyond that, however, is the creation of words and phrases to describe new designs or products. “Bioswales,” “geotextiles,” “CAD” and “BIM” all are terms that weren’t in my vocabulary when I started working.

Getting Smart

We continue to add words to our language because of rapid changes in the world. The word “smart,” for example, now is being used to refer to smart design and smart cities.

This issue of Informed Infrastructure focuses on “Smart Engineering,” and inside you will read articles about smart cities, smart grid communications and how we use new available data to better serve the public.

The concept of smart cities, however, isn’t all that recent. Some of the technologies involved obviously are new, but if you look back in history, there were some pretty basic but amazingly forward-looking designs being performed.

The Dawn of Smart Civilization

The Mesopotamia region gave rise to the first cities. Even then, it seems the cities were planned—at least to some degree—to provide for the large number of people who would settle there. They developed canals, irrigation and wind power to ensure the success of this new venture. Although many of the people gave credit to their gods for their success, there was certainly some planning and forethought in this early development of the first cities.

In a previous issue of this magazine, I wrote a “Final Thoughts” column about a visit to Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico (see “Looking Backwards and Forwards,” July/August 2016). It’s an ancient city built by the Mayans in 600 AD. In addition to the large buildings, there was a network of almost 100 paved roadways and sidewalks to enable easy transport of people and materials. This is significant given that most cities in Europe didn’t have paved streets. In addition, the Mayans developed means of tapping into underground rivers for their water supply, rather than carrying and storing water, which leads to increased evaporation in this very arid region. These systems were put in place due to necessity, but were well thought out.

In more-recent history, many cities were designed with standards that would provide for the best use by its inhabitants. Paris, Washington, D.C., and Indianapolis come to mind. Chicago was planned in part by the architect Daniel Burham who is purported to have said: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Although there wasn’t as much data to use in planning and development, the city planners were using information from past experiences to incorporate practices that seemed to work best.

This issue of Informed Infrastructure provides articles about the new definition of smart design and smart cities, and how engineers and planners are using current technology and information gathering to build better places to live and work.

New Definitions

Today there’s so much more information readily available to create the basis for smart engineering and design. As we all know, vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians are counted and tracked continuously to provide data for better signal timing and safer conditions as well as to reduce resource use and, therefore, overall costs. This issue of Informed Infrastructure provides articles about the new definition of smart design and smart cities, and how engineers and planners are using current technology and information gathering to build better places to live and work.

As a side note, I’m trying to add a new word into the dictionary. The word describes what I plan to be now that I’m no longer working full time. “Retirementor”: one who has retired but lends past experiences and knowledge to younger people in the same profession. I’m not sure if the word will catch on, but I intend to do that anyway.

Robert Schickel

About Robert Schickel

Robert Schickel, P.E., has 40 years of experience in planning, design, plan preparation, and construction management of civil and transportation projects. He currently works for DB Sterlin Consultants Inc. as a consultant to Peoples Gas; e-mail: rschickel@dbsterlin.com.

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