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:


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

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
Recommended readings
Whole Earth Discipline

Why dense cities, nuclear power, transgenic crops, restored wildlands, radical science, and geoengineering are necessary

Stewart Brand, Atlantic Books, 1 October 2010

Their Moon Shot and Ours

China is doing moon shots. Yes, that’s plural. When I say “moon shots” I mean big, multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing investments.

Thomas Friedman, New York Times, 25 September 2010

Aren’t We Clever?

While American Republicans were turning climate change into a wedge issue, the Chinese Communists were turning it into a work issue.

Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, 18 September 2010

Doing More With Less: An Engineer's Guide To Sustainable Manufacturing

To meet rising human expectations without inflicting irreparable damage on the environment or consuming an undue share of the resources that will be needed by future generations, many manufacturers are re-examining the way they conduct their operations to find ways to make them more sustainable. The goal is to do more with less: in less time, using less energy, water and raw materials, and with less waste and emissions.

Andy Gravitt, Plant Engineering, 27 July 2010

Why mad inventors don’t survive the Dragons’ Den

The hit BBC show reveals the bean-counting cautiousness and lack of entrepreneurial spirit of today’s capitalists.

Neil Davenport, spiked, 26 July 2010

We need to make the case for infrastructure now

Our focus must be around our ability to design and build the vital infrastructure needed to underpin tomorrow’s low carbon, high population, sustainable economy. Infrastructure that ensures the UK works and is attractive to private investment.

Antony Oliver, New Civil Engineer, 9 July 2010

The State of the Nation: Infrastructure 2010

State of the Nation reports have been compiled each year since 2000 by panels of experts drawn from the various fields of expertise across ICE’s membership. Their aim is to stimulate debate and to highlight the actions that we believe are needed to improve the state of the nation’s infrastructure and associated services. pdf

Institution of Civil Engineers, June 2010

We have the technology to cool our planet

Our current approach to climate change is failing. We must be ready for more radical answers

Tony Brenton, The Times, 5 May 2010

A Hard Look at the Perils and Potential of Geoengineering

The Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies, held last week at the Asilomar conference grounds near Monterey, Calif., was touted as an “unprecedented” gathering of 175 scientists, environmental groups, philosophers, and public policy wonks to discuss the governance of geoengineering — that is, large-scale, intentional manipulation of the Earth’s climate to offset rising temperatures.

Jeff Goodell,, 1 April 2010

Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand

If we are serious about curbing climate change, what would actually help? More people in cities, lots of nuclear power stations and lashings of GM crops, urges Stewart Brand. Unless green activists embrace the benefits of all three, they are not part of the solution, but part of the problem.

Jon Turney, Guardian, 9 January 2010

Engineering: A Beginner's Guide

Focusing on the impact of engineering on society and the world, McCarthy details the development of the discipline, explains what makes an engineering mind, and shows how every aspect of our lives has been engineered: from gadgets to our national infrastructure.

Natasha McCarthy, Oneworld Publications, 1 August 2009

Roads Gone Wild

Monderman is one of the leaders of a new breed of traffic engineer - equal parts urban designer, social scientist, civil engineer, and psychologist. The approach is radically counterintuitive: Build roads that seem dangerous, and they'll be safer.

Tom McNichol, Wired, December 2004

Session partners