Contribution, communication and the wider view

Features editor

Not enough is being done to communicate the important role that engineers can play to improving the lives of millions of people around the world.

With The Engineer’s focus on emergent technologies, we can sometimes get caught up in the lure of what might be called the high-tech, lightweight and shiny end of the sector. But interviewing Arup’s Tom Wilcock, recently named Young Consultant of the Year by one of our fellow engineering sector journals, The Civil Engineer, raised some interesting questions about the roles that engineers can play in the wider world.

Wilcock, whose profile you can read in the latest digital edition of The Engineer and online here, says that it was the passion shown by structural engineers he encountered at Arup during work-experience and a pre-university year which convinced him that his future lay in the sector, and he’s not short of passion himself. He believes that engineers, particularly those in the developed world, have a responsibility to help improve the lives of people around the world, and that they don’t do enough to communicate that responsibility and their ability to help.

If you want an (admittedly crude) representation of the gap between rich and poor, an example was presented by Airbus UK R&D chief Colin Sirrett at our conference last week: only a seventh of the world population have access to air travel. Of course, a very significant proportion don’t have access to any of the technologies we are lucky enough to take for granted.

For the millions upon millions around the world who endure lives of grinding poverty, there are three things that will go a long way to improving their conditions: shelter, education (particularly of women and girls), and access to infrastructure. There’s not a huge amount engineers can do about education — apart from building schools — but the other two are definitely within our province. Wilcock discusses some of the work he is doing to help improve the resilience of buildings in rural Pakistan to earthquake damage, using high-tech analysis tools to work out which features of traditional building techniques are best suited to making strong buildings. And our regular blog from humanitarian engineering charity RedR details some of the work its volunteers do to improve one of the most important aspects of infrastructure, namely sanitation, to regions recovering from natural disasters or the damage wrought by conflicts.

Another hugely important aspect of infrastructure to help improve living conditions and incomes is electricity; with that, people have access to lighting, refrigeration, and the ability to access the internet via mobile phones, thereby taking advantage of the increasing availability of satellite data coverage even in remote regions. This is an increasing challenge for engineers everywhere: we need to generate much more electricity, it needs to be clean and safe, and it needs to either be distributed from large generating sources or generated by small, local equipment.

Wilcock believes that the public, policy-makers and opinion-formers don’t appreciate the role that engineers play in these activities, especially in the UK. Remedying this, he says, would help to improve the standing of engineers within society and would help attract young people — who are often interested in helping to tackle this kind of problem — into the profession. It’s an argument with which we have a lot of sympathy, and although it’s heartening to see some progress being made towards this (an example is the slogan used by the Royal Academy of Engineering at the recent Big Bang Fair, ‘Engineers Save Lives’) it’s also true that not enough is done to communicate this — not least to qualified, working engineers whose skills might be brought to bear on problems such as this. As Wilcock’s work on developing-world building techniques shows, you can make considerable contributions whether you’re on the ground, or working at a remote location.