Article - Issue 29, December 2006

Responses to ‘Engineering adaptation’, ‘Investigating New Orleans’ and ‘Why do large IT programmes fail?

Professor Jim Hall and Professor Enda O’Connell FREng, Robert Muir Wood MA PhD and Professor Jim Norton

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Response To ‘Engineering Adaptation’

Scott Steedman’s editorial (‘Engineering adaptation’, Ingenia 28) called for engineers to take a lead in the process of adaptation to climate change. The same issue of Ingenia included two letters on carbon capture and storage (CCS). These articles reflect different facets of the role engineers have in managing coupled human and natural systems on an ever more anthropogenic planet. Be it in anticipating and responding to the effects of climate change or in purposefully engineering the carbon cycle (through CCS and other technologies), engineers are intervening in the Earth system with a view to the effects at an unprecedented range of scales, up to the planetary scale.

It is now time to establish a clear identity for this process of consciously and rationally engineering the coupled human and natural systems that constitute the Earth system – this is Earth Systems Engineering, a term first used in 1998 by Brad Allenby, then Vice President for Environment, Health and Safety at AT&T. The field of Earth Systems Science is already well established, and indeed our scientific colleagues have occupied most of the high ground in debates about climate change. But, as Scott Steedman has suggested, it is of course engineers who will be at the forefront of delivering adaptation technologies and strategies.

The task of Earth Systems Engineering is one of designing and implementing at system scale sets of technological interventions, possibly implemented in tandem with socio-economic and policy instruments, and monitoring and managing them over extended timescales. When operating at these scales, engineering interventions cannot be separated from their social, ethical and governance contexts, hence the need to harmonise technological interventions with their socio-economic settings. In the face of considerable scientific uncertainty about the future evolution of the Earth system, as predicted by Earth Systems Science, methods of robust options analysis are required to identify strategies that perform acceptably well under a range of plausible futures. Information and communication technologies are necessary not only to manage the complexity of the analysis, design and monitoring processes but also to empower stakeholders to participate in assessment, decision making and implementation.

In October 2000 the US National Academy of Engineering held its first workshop on Earth Systems Engineering and is seeking to foster international dialogue among experts in Earth Systems Engineering’s constituent disciplines. The Royal Academy of Engineering can occupy a pivotal role in this debate. Furthermore, the state of a nation’s technical institutions is one determinant of our capacity to propose feasible adaptation options that are robust to future uncertainties, and to implement them in a timely way. In that sense the Academy also has the potential to be a crucial component of the UK’s adaptive capacity.

Professor Jim Hall and Professor
Enda O’Connell FREng
Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Newcastle University


New Orleans
Fighting To Stay Above Water

I write in response to ‘Investigating New Orleans’ in Ingenia 28. The predicament of New Orleans can only be understood in its historical context – as a city developed around the central fight against flood risk, but which has consistently underappreciated the level of that risk. New Orleans has been flooded by storm surges four times in the past century (in 1915, 1947, 1965 and 2005) and after each, modest improvements in flood defences encouraged the development of tens of thousands of properties in the ‘protected’ flood plain. In each disaster more properties were flooded than previously:Katrina flooded six times as many properties and drowned 18 times as many people than 1965’s Hurricane Betsy, although the footprint of the flooding, at least to the east of the city, was comparable.

Throughout the 20th century engineers have lived in denial about the geological subsidence of the city – at rates between 5 and 15mm (and greater) per year. The evidence for the subsidence was everywhere. Land above high tide in the early 19th century is today an average of 1.8m below sea level. After Katrina it was found that flood defences built as recently as 2000 were up to 40cm lower than intended because the monuments employed to set their heights had not been re-levelled for forty years. Subsidence is the principal reason that each flood was more deadly and destructive.

The most recent round of post-1965 levee improvements were built to protect against a standard project hurricane’, represented as a slow moving Saffir Simpson Category 3 storm with sustained wind speeds of around 100mph. Hurricane activity has increased through the 1990s, and since 2000 the annual rate of intense land-falling Gulf hurricanes has been three times the long term average. At least half this increase is now being linked with global warming and a strong rise in sea surface temperatures (SSTs) within the main hurricane development region.

It is not just a matter of frequency but more critically of intensity. The worst case Category 5 storm surge in New Orleans would be 3m higher than that from Katrina. 2005 saw the greatest number of Cat 5 storms in a single year on record – four, all in the Gulf of Mexico. Studies of hurricane intensity in a warmer world show the greatest increases are expected for the strongest storms. And then there is annual eustatic sea level rise that has already increased by almost 80% since 1990, to more than 3mm/yr.

New Orleans is in a bind. People like to make the optimistic comparison with the Netherlands, but subsidence rates in New Orleans are more than twice those of the Netherlands,while storm surges can be three times as high as those experienced along the Dutch coast. Before Katrina no comprehensive risk assessment had ever been undertaken for New Orleans. After Katrina there should be no excuse, for any coastal city, for an engineer to fail to understand the implications of those geological processes that control subsidence or how changes in climate are altering the occurrence of extremes.

Robert Muir Wood MA PhD
Chief Research Officer,Risk Management Solutions
robertm@rms.com


Why Do We Never Learn?

I congratulate the Academy, both on the excellent report The Challenges of Complex IT Projects and on Pieter Lindeque’s timely article ‘Why do large IT programmes fail?’ (Ingenia 28). I would like to broaden the debate. Clearly there is still much that should be done to improve the professionalism of IT programmes. However, as Pieter touched upon in his article, often the dominant challenges don’t lie in the IT at all…

“There is no such thing as an IT project in isolation from its business change programme” observed the CSSA (now Intellect) in 2000. Academic bookshelves groan under the weight of books written over the past 40 years stressing that there is no such thing as an information systems project isolated from the people who will use that system. There are only ‘business change projects’comprising an integration of people and information technology with all the organisational politics, personal agendas, fears and mixed motivations that we human beings bring.

Most ‘business change’ programmes are facilitated by new IT systems. But all too often the programme is doomed from day one by failure to recognise the need to plan (and budget) for people and process change as well as IT change. The missing elements frequently include: business leadership; organisation restructuring; business process re-engineering; job and team redesign; determination of enduser requirements; opportunity costs (making time available from key users); overcoming cultural resistance; training; rebuilding performance measurement and pay structures; challenging disincentives in old business models; creating champions; parallel running and so on.

Research published by the Institute of Directors in August 2006 suggests a growing recognition that the most appropriate budget split is often 80% spend on ‘people and process’ and only 20% on IT. Perhaps the most intriguing finding is an apparent northsouth divide, with directors based in the north of the UK more inclined to budget for ‘people and process’ change than those based in the south.

The Academy has a strong tradition in broadening the education of engineers beyond pure engineering; surely it should now encourage training and support of those rare ‘hybrid’ professionals capable of managing both the business and IT elements of change?

Professor Jim Norton CDir CEng CITP
Senior Policy Adviser, Institute of Directors

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