Article - Issue 37, December 2008

Engineering us through the 2008 crash

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

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Dr Scott Steedman FREng

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

Imagine a world in which you wouldn’t take a train anxious that it would break down, cross a bridge worrying that it would collapse, switch on your television for fear it might explode. The physical fabric that supports our way of life is built on sound engineering models, we believe, but the rapid unravelling of the complex financial models that fund our global enterprise shows how easily that confidence can evaporate.

The sudden breakdown of trust of the present financial crisis now threatens to cast its shadow over engineering as we enter at best, a recession and, at worst, a great depression and the start of a new 20-year economic cycle.

The impact on the engineering sector is hard to predict. Within just a year volatile commodity prices have brought feast and famine to suppliers and markets. The slump in house building has depressed the value of the whole of the UK’s construction industry, simply by association. The unfolding collapse of fledgling financial institutions in emerging economies will become a minefield for manufacturing and technology sectors, increasingly reliant on just-in-time delivery and long, lean supply chains.

At home, Government borrowing is escalating rapidly. Ministers hint that they will spend their way out of recession, bringing forward major projects under a new ‘Green Keynesianism’. Even if this were appropriate, it is impractical.

Over the past 25 years, the UK has had an abysmal track record in getting major infrastructure schemes just to the starting line, let alone completed. Government and opposition have indicated support for new high-speed rail, but both parties acknowledge such schemes will take up to 20 years to plan, design and build. Engineering grand, complex schemes in today’s risk-averse and protest-rich social and political climate is not as simple as it was in the 1930s.

The loss of trust in financial institutions could well spread to the engineering sector, bringing together unlikely alliances of groups and lobbyists determined to obstruct projects for a wide range of reasons. At the end of October, the Women’s Institute teamed up with Greenpeace and others to protest at E.ON’s plans for a new prototype clean coal power station at Kingsnorth in Kent. Back in August, Arthur Scargill told the Kingsnorth protestors that they should target nuclear power instead. Confused?

Expect protestors outside the gates of new wind farms, tidal energy schemes, nuclear power stations, waste incinerators, everywhere in future. We love the products of technology, but we don’t want to pioneer them in our own back yard.

Yet innovation will be essential if we are to engineer our way out of a global crisis triggered by lax regulation and failed financial modelling. The capacity of a civilisation to offer new solutions that demonstrably improve people’s quality of life is fundamental to the maintenance of public trust in the institutions that govern them.

A year ago, just as the credit crunch began to bite, there were tantalising signs that engineering was finally rising up the political agenda in the UK, with a growing recognition that the time for action had arrived in dealing with the challenges of climate change, energy security, public health and poverty reduction and the challenge was now large scale delivery. Technology really did have a key role to play. Investors were gearing up to bring to market new solutions in all these fields.

Since then, as a profession, we have really begun to get ahead of the curve and have been increasingly active in supporting policy formation. There were even signs that politicians were listening. Can we maintain that progress in the face of a financial meltdown?

We must maintain funding for infrastructure projects and energy programmes. We must revisit our business models and be ready to adapt rapidly to changing circumstances. Above all, we must maintain public trust in the delivery of our engineering. The UK’s competitiveness depends on it.

Any failing in the models we use to advise, plan, design, finance, deliver, operate, maintain or decommission products and processes could swiftly become our own toxic risk, bringing loss of confidence, markets and momentum. Engineering our way out of this mess, we will stand or fall together.

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

Editor-in-Chief

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