Broadening the membership, becoming less risk averse, and always asking ‘why’ in regard to developing infrastructure needs – as well as the ‘when’ and ‘how’ – were core messages in the inaugural speech by the new President of the ICE (Institution of Civil Engineers), Sir John Armitt. Speaking to an overflowing audience at ICE headquarters in Great George Street, London, on Tuesday night – and across the websphere via a live video feed – Sir John, the 151st President to fill the post since the Institution was founded in 1818, delivered one of the most anticipated inaugural speeches and one that most in attendance described as inspirational, progressive, controversial in parts, and energizing. As one commentator put it in the reception afterwards, “very good – from a contractor.”
The year-long presidency of John Armitt is expected to bring to the post the leadership and organisational skills that he exhibited during his management of the delivery authority of the 2012 London Summer Olympics. The London Games were considered by many to be the most well-prepared for in recent times.
Sir John’s speech brought a sense of urgency that ‘there is a job to be done, and we will do it’, recognizing also the importance of team cooperation and multidisciplinary input.
The first, somewhat controversial, element of his speech came early on in proceedings. Recollecting his management of a team lead by Laing – in response to an open invitation from Government for the private sector to fund, build and operate a second traffic crossing of the River Severn in the UK – Sir John said: “This approach gave bidders the maximum chance to consider all the options, both in engineering and financing terms.” The winning group presented a bid with “as low a capital cost as possible in order to keep the future toll level as low as possible. In other words, what was affordable.” It was at this point that Armitt deliberately invited a French construction company to join the group “because I believe that the European system – where major contractors have their own in-house design capability – can lead to more cost effective solutions.” To emphasise his point, Sir John asked: “Can you name another industry that separates design from manufacturer? I see this issue as a continuing challenge for our industry.”
Another issue that holds back the development of major infrastructure in the UK, according to Sir John, is that, in considering the need, there is often a concentration by engineers on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ – “which appeal to our natural sense of design and delivery, or to a client’s desire to see quick physical results” – but not enough on the ‘why’. “Why do we need to build? Why this project over alternatives? Why is this 70-year-solution appropriate, or will a 20-year one do, and can we make more efficient use of existing infrastructure?”
It is the ‘why’ question, believes Sir John, that can also be applied to the Institution. “Why are we here? Are we relevant to today's and tomorrow's world? To be relevant we need to be clear in what we offer to society, to our clients, to employers, and to ourselves as individual members.”
Losing relevance to other more rapidly advancing sectors of infrastructure development was another major theme of Sir John’s speech, and a warning to civil engineers. “In the last 50 to 60 years we have seen major developments in other branches of engineering: in communications, energy, in new materials and their applications. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of our industry. Over recent decades we have been too slow – or too conservative – when compared to other disciplines.
“It is interesting to see that the next generation of cars could be Apple products rather than Ford. If the traditional professions and companies in the construction sector do not research, innovate or embrace new ideas coming from other technologies, they will get left behind. They may find their lunch has been eaten by others!”
For the development of major infrastructure, Sir John recognised the uneasy alliance between the construction industry and Government. Through his association with delivery of major projects – including the first phase of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (HS1) – he highlighted the role of the Institution, of Government, and of the general public.
As a nation, the UK lacks a long-term strategy that outlines its actual needs from infrastructure, said Sir John, who added, from experience, that making decisions concerning infrastructure certainly is not easy. He then commended the current UK Government for creating the National Infrastructure Commission – that he himself had promoted to the previous Government, and which is to be headed by Lord Adonis. “We need cross-party support for our long-term infrastructure, and the ICE is to be involved in leading an advisory group to the Commission. The Institution will never promote a party political position, [but we must] take a public position on infrastructure projects and help inform complex choices by successive Governments.” Sir John noted the 2012 London Olympics one of those rare projects that attracted cross-party support.
In addressing the issue of funding Sir John was pragmatic and straightforward. “Privatisation has not made any difference to arguments about what to build, and where; or the cost to the consumer. Ultimately the public will pay, either as taxpayers, savers, shareholders or customers of utilities.”
With regard to public perception, Sir John said that the greatest changes during his career had been in the impact and importance of environmental matters, but added: “We should not be discouraged by the fact that our work is often measured by its impact, both during construction and in operation. It is the long-term benefit we bring that is important.”
Another rather controversial point regarded risk. “We tend to be risk averse in our thinking,” said Sir John, “but to advance technologically, we must become more tolerant of risk taking. Low margins also mean a low capacity for experiment and risk. We rarely seem to transfer the knowledge we gain from either success or failure.
“For those of us in client organisations, we must recognise that we will be better served by designers and contractors who are given the opportunity to bring forward new ideas and to share the risks. We should strive to ensure that procurement allows for innovation to be brought forward during projects. There is a role for Government in setting long-term, demanding goals and standards, and using contracts and procurement to incentivise technological advances.”
In opening its doors to a broader membership, Sir John would welcome those from other countries, from associated disciplines, and from different levels of qualification.
There are professionals, for example, he explained, “who spend their whole careers contributing to the creation of infrastructure and who would value and benefit from a closer relationship with the Institution, would help raise the profession’s profile and reputation, and would support the development of long-term thinking.
“We must not step away from this responsibility. If we do, we risk being marginalised by economists, financiers, planners and think-tanks. We will be asked to do the technical calculations, whilst others are succeeding in being relevant and answering the why question.” Sir John explained that this will require civil engineers to be “comfortable debating social and economic issues” and he implored that “we learn and understand more about these issues as part of our professional development.”
Sir John also promoted development of technician-level membership, which, he said, would only work if “as colleagues and employers, we actively think about how we can use the skills of technicians, give them proper recognition, career paths and reward them. We must play an active part in promoting the vocational, work and study routes to a career. University is not the only route to a successful well-paid future.”
Regarding encouraging membership of ICE by engineers in other countries, Sir John said: “We must learn from engineers across the world, be inspired by them, and incorporate their ideas into our work. We cannot influence or learn by remaining aloof and separate. We are part of a global network and as such, we should interact with all those around the world who deliver civil engineering.”
In closing his presentation, and to great applause, Sir John unveiled a portrait of himself – that will hang inside the main entrance of the ICE in Great George Street during the coming year of his presidency. Expectation of his tenure is evidently high.