Missed opportunity at WTC Dubai training course 31 May 2018

Technical Journalist Dipl.-Ing. Roland Herr
Each year, the ITACET and ITACET Foundation of the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association (ITA) join forces with the organisers of the annual World Tunnel Congress to host a two-day training course for young professionals, engineering students and interested individuals as part of the event. Technical journalist, Roland Herr, attended the training courses at the WTC 2018 in Dubai and the WTC 2017 event in Bergen last year and reports that the audiences, while engaged and interested and well served by the lecturers and their presentation, were disappointingly low in number. Why is that the case and what can be done about it, are the questions he poses.

Same procedure as every year, seems to be the mantra of the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association (ITA) with numerous committees, working groups and actvities bringing the tunnelling family from all over the world together to meet, discuss and network for a week at annual changing host cities. Especially for young engineers, students and engineers interested in tunnelling, the WTC World Tunnel Congress and the ITA General Assembly could be a very attractive event. Also the development with the ITA Young Members shows a high potential.

A low 35 participants joined the Dubai training course
A low 35 participants joined the Dubai training course

Instead of 2,000 grandiose advised visitors and participants, the no-show coefficient was much higher than planned and at the end a reported 1,300 experts actually met in Dubai. One of the main reasons for this is the lack of communication and organisational skills in preparing this important event. It was so sad that the organizers gave away the chance to tease experts from the Mid East, India, Pakistan, Southeast Asia and more regions for visiting the WTC in Dubai. This also had an affect on the participation of young tunnellers. The organizers missed the great chance to reach their self-proclaimed target but this was not the only disappointment of main opportunities in Dubai. One of the most interesting events for young tunnellers should be the ITACET Training Course associated with the event. Should is the word.

Every year ITACET, the Committee on Education and Training of the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association, organizes ten to twelve training sessions with local partners in the ITA member nations with different numbers of participants. This special committee of the ITA was founded in 2009 after the international association identified education and training as one of its main strategic goals. So far, so good: the general topics are provided or requested by the region; the programme is checked with local representatives; and lecturers and presenters are selected by ITACET and its funding Foundation. At about 70 training sessions across the world since the first in 2009, some 7,500 people have participated, which is an average of about 110 participants per training session. For example, in China, about 300 people joined a training session in November 2017. But with about 1.4 billion people living in China, the percentage of young tunnellers joining the ITACET Training Session is how many? Success feels different under those considerations.

The use of underground space, as illustrated in Montreal, scored high in appreciation
The use of underground space, as illustrated in Montreal, scored high in appreciation

As is usual practice, the ITACET Foundation worked with this year´s WTC host, the Society of Engineers of the United Arab Emirates (SOE of UAE), to organise the training session in Dubai on Saturday and Sunday (21, 22 April) under the title Main opportunities and technical issues in tunnelling. The presentations were great, the topics absolutely interesting, the participants from all over the world – Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Sweden, UK, USA and more – were curious and motivated. But the number of participants, at roundabout 35 interested people sitting in the audience, was a disaster. As a reminder: the number of participants in the Training Session one year ago in Bergen also reached a limited “fantastic” 55 interested people. The question is why? Who is responsible? Are the young tunnellers not interested? How to solve which problem?

Trying to answer these questions, a journalist may use various different tools, but how to be successful if you feel like a small wave arriving at the huge shore of the ITACET islands? The sea found the answer: send waves again and again.

The presentations

For young professionals as well as more experienced engineers, the presentations from start to finish were highly engaging. The first day was dedicated to a general introduction on the advantages and main features related to tunnels and underground space use, especially in urban areas. The second day focused on several technical topics of particular interest in regard to a sustainable approach to underground infrastructure. It was difficult to rank the highly qualified presentations by well-known experts, but interviewing some participants for their ranking, the presentations of Antonia Cornaro and Han Admiraal, speaking to the topic Illustrated examples of solutions and missed opportunities, and the presentation by Wout Broere on Underground sustainable solutions for urban planning, were ranked highly. In their presentation Addmiraal and Cornaro explained that the city centre underground urban space under the city of Montreal in Canada houses 1,600 shops, 40 restaurants, 10 underground metro stations, and 30 cinemas, an achievement that other cities of the world are following. A special and refreshing presentation by Professor Arnold Dix integrated the audience in the presentation about Legal and compensation issues for underground space by posing questions and rewarding the right answers and ideas with sweets packed in 5 Dirham notes - an extraordinary presentation.

Underground resources for sustainable urban planning
Underground resources for sustainable urban planning

The participants

But who are the students, the young tunnellers and why did they join the training session in Dubai? One of the most serious hurdles to joining a WTC Training Session is the cost with fees of about US$400-500 (in Dubai there was no discount for young tunnellers) and for flights and accommodation to travel to Dubai in addition. Not every student has the financial basis to pay the bill. Johanna, a young civil engineer from UK, had the costs covered via a scholarship from the Royal Academy of Engineering in London. She was interested in particular in the technical details and the construction, financing and contracting of tunnel infrastructure projects. She learned of the Training Session in Dubai as a member of the ITA Young Members.

Another of the students joining the Training Session was Alasdair, also from UK, an assistant tunnel engineer studying part time for his Master in Tunnelling and Underground Space. He expected to get more information about the practical side of tunnelling and joined the training session for the second time, having been part of the training session at the WTC in Bergen last year (2017). Impressive that he took days off from work to attend the conference and covered all costs himself. Alasdair is also an ITA Young Member.

Very different was the background of Wai Hon from Hong Kong, a geotechnical engineer working at a Governmental institution. He has been working in the business for 12 years and Dubai was the first time for him to join the WTC. As an incentive each year, his employer sends staff members to the WTC and covers all the costs. He had little knowledge of ITACET but he expected to be provided with basic technical information to deepen his technical knowledge and learn more of fundamental tunnelling topics.

Arnold Dix integrated audience participation in his entertaining presentation
Arnold Dix integrated audience participation in his entertaining presentation

Maria, originally from Greece and after residing for several years in the UK, has been working for a consulting company in Dubai since 2013 and is currently as a project manager on a job site. She regrets the absence of possibilities for training and education in Dubai and that was her reason to join the training session. Unfortunately she was representing the very few number of participants from Dubai. But this was no surprise because the regional universities in the Emirates region apparently received no information about the training session organized at the WTC.

Senior geologist Paul from Sweden also joined the training session for the first time. After seven years in his job, he found some topics interesting for his daily professional life. All costs for his participation at the Dubai event were covered also by his company.

Siddharta from Nepal, a managing director of a company distributing lubricants, materials and service parts for TBMs, joined the ITACET training session to learn how to better adapt the tunnelling concept for his business. He had no engineering background, but was very interested. His intention was to learn and to expand his business.

Finally, the impression was that the highest percentage of participants did not come from the targeted group of young tunnellers, young engineers or students but rather from young professionals already working in the industry. On asking the question in the ITA press conference, why only 35 participants joined the ITACET training session and why so few from Dubai, from the UAE, from the Middle East region, the answers were disappointing. There is a huge gap between the organization and the targeted group of young engineers and tunnellers. Promotion and communication about the training sessions appears to be inadequate and fails to reach the targeted groups. Everybody involved in the ITACET organization, it Foundation, and the ITA Executive Council and the presenters and lecturers, did their best, but in the end the results cannot express a satisfying execution of the mission. The organisational work seems to be more important than the mission of training and education of the target group. A strong and deep level restructure and reorganisation of this important ITA Committee could perhaps show a direction into a solution. For the mission of education and training our future tunnelling experts, a deep level improvement is evidently needed.

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