Article - Issue 33, December 2007

Response to Grand Challenges; Flood-Risk Management; A Heart in Engineering; Correction to Issue 32

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Response to grand challenges

It is good that the “Grand Challenges for Engineering for the 21st Century” (Ingenia 32) are being addressed internationally. It is particularly welcome that The Royal Academy of Engineering’s contribution emphasises that the key to the primary objective of engineering is an ethical ethos as the basis of practice and education.

Over the past 100 years we have learned that the quality of human life cannot be sustained at the expense of bio-diversity and environmental life-support systems. Now that we have become aware that the systems which have been engineered are not sustainable for a global population of several billion, the overarching challenge must be to re-engineer all systems in ways which will ensure that the serious damage, already done to wildlife and the life-support systems, is halted.

Our existing systems are profligate in the use of limited supplies of land, water, very cheap, concentrated energy and non-renewable materials. With a 50% increase in world population forecast by 2050, fossil fuels will only be able to supply a fraction of the requirement. The new systems will have to be extremely frugal in the use of land, water and energy resources, particularly as the new sources are diffuse and inevitably several times as costly as fossil fuels. By 2100, they will be dominant sources.

With the global human population having grown several fold, if the balance of nature is to be restored with species loss less than the increase in biodiversity, there will need to be a massive reduction in land appropriated by humans at the expense of all other species.

The only known practical way in which the human population can be reduced is by poverty reduction. Consequently, an important part of the present challenge is to produce a variety of appropriate systems to satisfy the varied needs and wants of all people.

What a wonderful challenge for engineers!

John Davis FREng

Retired – formerly Chairman and Managing Director, Shell Composites and IBE

Flood-risk management

Jean Venables touched on a number of issues relating to Flood-Risk Management (Ingenia 32) in her contribution following the Summer floods that occurred in June and July. The impact of these floods was sufficiently severe that it seems likely they have produced damage well in excess of £4 billion.

The June floods were also the most destructive that have occurred in parts of South Yorkshire and Humberside for the last 150 years or so, where they nearly caused the catastrophic failure of a Victorian Dam at Ulley near Rotherham and overwhelmed the City of Hull. July brought the horror of flooding to the Lower Severn and the River Avon where the citizens of Tewkesbury felt the uncomfortable consequences of living on the floodplain downstream of the confluence of two large rivers.

The summer flooding rather exposed the notion of ‘learning to live with rivers’, which seems a good idea in principle as long as it does not entail its forcible entry into your living room. As Venables points out, the confusion over what are permissive powers and those that impose a legal duty still introduces confusion into Flood-Risk Management in the United Kingdom. Indeed the lack of coordination between the various key utilities in relation to managing the consequences of major floods was dramatically exposed.

The various privatisations of utilities in past years has done little to enhance the readiness of such companies in relation to defending key assets or in even identifying them and their risks in terms of major floods. The institutional structures now imposed on such key utilities as water and power do little to encourage risk-based management, given that their financial models now revolve around periodic review by economic regulators with little feel for, or interest in, traditional utility sector management for the public good.

In many ways the summer floods exposed the current system and government has correctly reacted with some heavyweight reviews. To some extent this was timely given the expected increase in flooding as a consequence of future climate change impact and serves as a ‘wake-up’ call. It may bring about a timely reformation of Flood-Risk Management in the UK, reflecting more fully the advice contained in the Foresight Flood and Coastal Defence Project on UK flood risk as anticipated between 2030 and 2100. It may also accelerate a long overdue update of the building regulations for all future new properties built on floodplains.

Professor Ian Cluckie FREng FRSA

Water and Environmental Management Research Centre, University of Bristol

A Heart in Engineering

I was pleased to read Arthur Bourne’s article ‘Engineering and the Artist’s Eye: Literature’ (Ingenia 26). Bourne’s piece focused on three key writers of science fiction (Verne, Wells, Clarke), where the inspiration of engineering is most apparent. But examples exist in more purely literary fiction too. In particular, I suggest Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), author of Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim and Nostromo. Conrad featured engineers in many of his novels and short stories and the number of events and conferences being held to celebrate his 150th anniversary this December are testimony to his contemporary relevance.

Conrad was nearly forty when his first novel was published – until then he had worked for fifteen years as a seaman, and had a keen sense of the importance of technology and work. A ship sailing the ocean is a totally engineered space, yet deeply influenced by external events and forces. The symbolism of a small community alone in a ship on the boundless ocean is obvious, and Conrad made much of it, particularly in his collection of poetical essays The Mirror of the Sea. “For what is the array of the strongest ropes, the tallest spars, and the stoutest canvas against the mighty breath of the infinite, but thistle stalks, cobwebs and gossamer?”

In such an environment, work and technology develop in step with conditions, from which Conrad draws an important moral for the ethics of engineering and practice. “Now, the moral side of an industry, productive or unproductive, the redeeming and ideal aspect of this bread-winning, is the attainment and preservation of the highest possible skill on the part of the craftsmen. Such skill, the skill of technique, is more than honest; it is something wider, embracing honesty and grace and rule in an elevated and clear sentiment, not altogether utilitarian, which may be called the honour of labour. It is made up of accumulated tradition, kept alive by individual pride, rendered exact by professional opinion, and, like the higher arts, it is spurred on and sustained by discriminating praise.” Readers of Ingenia will recognise that account, I am sure.

Language, craft, technology and respect for the environment – a vital nexus underlying humankind’s artful adaptation of the natural world into a hospitable engineered space. Conrad’s writings in this area remain of great value for understanding the principles (moral, political and pragmatic) underlying engineering and work, and I am sure will be of great interest to engineers practising today.

Kieron O’Hara

(author of Joseph Conrad Today, published in November 2007)

Web Science Research Initiative, School of Electronics and Computer Science, University of Southampton

Correction to Issue 32

Ingenia published an article last September about EWB-UK and its project in Nigeria. My article stated that the vented ford failed due to late design changes and gave the impression that EWB-UK's internal review of the project allocated some blame for the failure to Benny Neylon and Annette Lucas. This is totallyincorrect. The review did not find that the failure of the crossing could be attributed to design decisions taken by individuals. The intention of the article was to demonstrate that EWB-UKis an organisation that learns from its mistakes and corrects them, and remains dedicatedto the project in Nigeria. EWB would like to take this opportunity to apologise to Benny and Annette for the misleading nature ofthe article.

Tom Newby

Trustee, Engineers Without Borders – UK

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