Innovative engineering: within limits?

Sunday 31 October, 3.45pm until 5.15pm, Henry Moore Gallery

When the great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel suggested the Great Western Railway be extended to New York, he wasn’t put off by the fact that the Atlantic was in the way: he resolved to build the Great Western steamship. That was in 1836. Today by contrast, Peter Head, director of the world’s leading engineering company Arup suggests we should ‘live within the environmental limits of the planet’. Two very different attitudes, which reflect different historical realities. To put it another way, environmentalist George Monbiot has suggested that ‘the battle lines are drawn between the expanders and restrainers; those who believe that there should be no impediments and those who believe that we must live within limits’. So with limits and restraint the fashionable buzzwords, what role for engineers?

Many observers criticise calls to put engineering and manufacturing back at the heart of the British economy as nothing more than nostalgia for a past long eclipsed by the rise of the service and technology sectors, let alone by the low-wage industrial economies of China and India. In India almost every student seems to want to be an engineer: in the UK it’s almost anything but. In China, every member of the Politburo is an engineer (although lacking the profession’s creative expression). Economist Philippe Legrain suggests the desire to return to manufacturing ‘“real” things that you can drop on your foot’ is a misplaced backlash against the tarnished and ethereal finance-driven economy. With the UK’s heavy industry a distant memory, Brunel’s ability to call on an army of navvies exemplifies a bygone era of labour-intensive hard-graft. Today engineering and manufacturing are more light-footed.

Whereas Joseph Bazelgette singlemindedly built London’s drainage network to eliminate London’s Big Stink in the 19th century, today the Building Regulations suggest we reduce pressure on the system by flushing the toilet less often. Optimising extant infrastructure is engineering’s new Big Idea. We are told there’s no need to build a desalination plant to provide 140 million litres of water each day, because the UK can save 3.5 billion litres of water a day by eliminating leakage. Why build a new runway or high-speed rail-link, if ‘radical localism’ is the way forward? Why build more when you can make do with less? After all, Gordon Murray, McLaren Formula 1’s ex-engineer, has just developed the T.25 city car which needs much reduced energy to power it. In order to reduce its carbon footprint, Buro Happold have engineered the 2012 Olympic Stadium using one-tenth the steel required in Beijing’s 2008 Bird’s Nest (and looking one-hundred times less impressive). Is this just the normal efficiency drive inherent within engineering practice, or are we increasing the efficiency of existing products and industries - for example metering devices to monitor energy use – at the expense of inventing new ones?

Listen to session audio:

 

Speakers
Bob Joyce
group engineering director, Jaguar Land Rover

Antony Oliver
editor, New Civil Engineer magazine

Dr Natasha McCarthy
head of policy, British Academy; member, steering committee, Forum for Philosophy, Engineering and Technology

Dr Paul Reeves
engineering software designer, SolidWorks R&D (part of Dassault Systèmes); convener, manufacturing work group for Big Potatoes: the London manifesto for innovation

Dale Russell
director, Russell Studio; visiting professor, Innovation Design Engineering, Royal College of Art; emeritus visiting professor, Central Saint Martins, UAL

Chair:
Austin Williams
associate professor in architecture, XJTLU University, Suzhou, China; director, Future Cities Project; convenor, Bookshop Barnies; founding member of New Narratives

Produced by
Austin Williams associate professor in architecture, XJTLU University, Suzhou, China; director, Future Cities Project; convenor, Bookshop Barnies; founding member of New Narratives
Dr Paul Reeves engineering software designer, SolidWorks R&D (part of Dassault Systèmes); convener, manufacturing work group for Big Potatoes: the London manifesto for innovation
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