A Vision For The Future
Jamie was the winner of the 2012 NCE Graduate of the Year award, so if you’re wondering what it takes to win, you can read his response to the debate question “Engineering in 40 Years Time” below – Ed.
The future is undeniably urban. Already the majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and this is projected to grow to 80% by 2052. However, the cities of the future will be far removed from today’s congested, sprawling concrete jungles. Better urban planning will introduce more open space into the centres of our cities, while interconnected pedestrian and cycle routes will encourage residents to abandon their cars in favour of a more active lifestyle. Shared-use lightweight electric vehicles will provide a convenient means of transport for longer journeys while doubling as a distributed energy storage system for a smart grid, powered by intermittent renewable energy sources.
The daily commute to work will become a thing of the past for many, unlocking extra hours in the day and turning the city’s parks and cafes into distributed workspaces. Total wireless internet coverage and cloud computing will provide seamless information sharing across the city, with site engineers receiving real-time design updates, eliminating any disconnect between the design office and the reality on the ground, and thereby minimising delays to construction. A total shift to modular, off-site fabrication will make construction sites truly safe places to work while simultaneously minimising wastage and improving quality. Lightweight structures using smart materials that optimise thermal comfort without the need for heating, cooling and forced ventilation will make zero-carbon buildings a reality, while integrated renewable energy generation, greywater recycling and sustainable urban drainage systems will minimise our dependence on ageing infrastructure.
Traditional distinctions between different civil engineering roles will become blurred as projects are developed by integrated multi-disciplinary teams. Clients will have more scope to influence key decisions, even acting as the designer in personalising projects through the use of immersive building information modelling, with reconfigurable internal floorplans offering boundless opportunities for innovation and multiple-use spaces.
If that is the future, how do we get there? Civil engineers must lead the paradigm shift to a low-carbon economy, providing the necessary infrastructure and design expertise to make it a reality. This will put the profession ahead of society as a whole, and as such civil engineers will have an increasingly important advocacy role to play in shaping government policy. By 2052, ‘sustainability’ and ‘carbon footprint’ will have become buzzwords of the past, with low-carbon design long since established and fully embedded in all new-build construction projects. Instead, the challenges facing civil engineers will be in dealing with the legacy of our current built environment. Approximately 80% of the UK’s building stock in 2052 already exists today, and retrofitting these structures with the latest low-energy technologies will be a serious and ongoing challenge for the engineering community.
The world will also become an increasingly unpredictable place, with the effects of anthropogenic climate change leading to more regular extreme weather events. These in turn could cause cascade failure of our infrastructure systems which have become increasingly interdependent. Severe flooding might close key transport networks and take baseload electricity generation offline, which would in turn affect communication systems and water treatment works causing the whole country to grind to a sudden halt. The devastating impacts of hurricane Sandy are a timely call-to-arms for civil engineers everywhere to redouble efforts to improve the resilience of critical infrastructure.
Challenges, however, provide scope for innovation, and our profession will be pivotal in the development of resilient infrastructure systems that can adapt to the inevitable effects of climate change. Intelligent networks will allow continuous asset monitoring and so enable timely reactive maintenance of critical infrastructure. This, coupled with engaged, proactive communities could form part of the answer.
The world will be a very different place in 2052, and although we cannot be sure of the challenges we will face, what is certain is that civil engineers will have a crucial role to play in shaping our future.