Will the Olympics change the public’s view of engineering?

Senior reporter

The Olympics has been a brilliant chance for Britain to shine, not just in sport but also in culture, media, hospitality and, perhaps in some ways best of all, in engineering.

From the strikingly impressive venues at the Olympic Park, to the transport system that has (so far) coped so well in transporting record numbers of people around the capital, to the ingenious technology used to train our athletes with never-seen-before precision, Britain’s engineers have responded to this once-in-a-lifetime challenge in a way we can all be proud of.

Even Danny Boyle’s spellbinding opening ceremony managed to celebrate the vital role of Britain’s engineers from Brunel to Berners-Lee in shaping the world in which we live (even if some might have objected to the emphasis on dark Satanic mills).

But for all the successes of engineering in the Games, I wonder how many of the public will make the link and perhaps have their perceptions and preconceptions challenged.

Certainly the stadium, velodrome and aquatics centre are obvious examples and the most visible symbol of engineering achievement. A recent survey by the Institution of Civil Engineers found that more than a third of respondents thought the Olympic Park had helped them appreciate the importance of civil engineering to society.

The media have also given plenty of coverage to the technology behind the games, especially as Britain tends to excel in sports that use highly engineered equipment such as cycling and rowing. So much has been made of Team GB’s attention to detail in these areas that questions have been raised about whether this creates an unfair advantage, with some competitors going so far as to effectively accuse us of cheating.

But as those involved with the Park’s construction note in a great short film produced by the ICE (see below), much of the most impressive engineering – underground power cables, wireless communication systems etc ­– is invisible from the outside. Out of sight, out of mind. Other elements such as transport suffer from the problem that people only notice them if they go wrong.

Also there are the promotional restrictions placed on those engineering companies involved with the Olympics but who are not sponsors, an issue we’ve written about before and has been noted by the chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) Sir John Armitt.

Once the Games come to a close and life returns to normal, engineers must seize the opportunity and continue to promote their achievements, highlighting the crucial importance of their role in pulling off perhaps the greatest advertisement for British skills and business in the last 50 if not 100 years. That would be truly worthwhile legacy for London 2012.

The professional view: Will the Olympics affect the public perception of engineering in the UK?

Philip Greenish, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

‘London 2012 has undoubtedly been an astounding success and it is all underpinned by the excellent design, construction and project management of the Olympic facilities delivered by engineers. While this has been a source of national pride, there have been few issues of note and so few headlines. Engineers need to help the country to recognise and celebrate these brilliant engineering achievements.’

Prof William Webb, chief technology officer of Neul and former director of technology resources at Ofcom.

‘The structures (especially the velodrome) are engineering masterpieces, but most would probably think of architects more than engineers. Some sports, like cycling, have much engineering at their heart but I suspect most assume a bike is a bike and (rightly) look more at the rider. Some will notice interesting TV camera angles, 3D coverage, web feeds and more and perhaps be intrigued as to how these were generated but will probably associate this with broadcasting rather than engineering. In summary, I think that unless an effort is made to “educate” the public as to how much engineering there is underlying the Olympics and tell an interesting story around it, then most will not make the link.’

Prof Steve Haake, director of the Centre for Sports Engineering Research at Sheffield Hallam University.

‘We’ve had all sorts of people interested [in our work]. Channel 4 did something, Newsnight did something, BBC World did something. But for me an indicator is our sports engineering blog. We have had just shy of 150,000 hits. It started off relatively small with 20 to 50 a day but now we’re getting 1,000 hits a day. And those people are searching for terms like “engineering and sport”. One of our aims over the last four-year Olympiad has been to raise the profile of engineering in sport and I think we’ve done that.’

David Waboso, director for capital programmes at London Underground.

‘The trouble with engineering is people take it for granted. They look at those wonderful stadia, they look at the transport links, they look at the communication, and they just don’t necessarily think about how it’s there. They’d miss it if it wasn’t there so I think our job is to remind them, just a gentle nudge, of how important engineering is to have delivered this and then I think they will start appreciating it.’

Gordon Masterton, vice president of Jacobs Engineering and former president of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

‘Will the Olympics change the public’s perception of engineering? Probably not without a bit of help from the organisations from the Academy and the engineering institutions to talk up the engineering input and to explain just how much has gone into making them a success. There’s a challenge to the engineering community. It’s down to us now, although a lot’s been done already. There’s been a massive feelgood factor that you can’t quantify but is an opportunity to spring forward from. Let’s hope that happens.’

Dr Scott Steedman, director of standards at the British Standards Institution (BSI).

‘Everyone I’ve spoken to has said it’s very impressive, and I’ve had emails from China, Japan, Germany saying congratulations on organising a great Olympics. So it’s been noticed; there’s no doubt about that. And it’s a curious British habit that we don’t celebrate these things. I suppose it is another step in a process of changing the perception of engineering and part of a sequence that builds into a bigger picture. I don’t think the Olympics should be seen as a one-off.’