Embracing know-how and knowledge from other industries is critical for the civil engineering sector as it adapts to a fast-paced digital age, PCSG’s Katherine Bew told a webinar today.

The built-environment sector will “go much faster and achieve much more” by adopting skills and learning from a range of sectors, Katherine said.

Becoming more outcomes-driven and better establishing links between assets and how they will meet the  needs of communities must also be a core focus for professionals working within the built-environment, she said.

Katherine was speaking on a webinar ‘Engineering Rebellion – the Future Civil Engineer’ held by the Institution of Civil Engineers.

More than 700 people tuned into the session which explored areas including the skillsets that the new-generation of civil engineers must have, how best the sector can embed sustainable approaches into delivery and where the built environment professionals for the future will be sourced from.

Questions posed to the panel from the audience included ones around ownership of data and whether graduates seeking to join the profession without software programming and similar skills would be at a disadvantage. Concerns about the digital skills debate being an ‘old vs young’ debate were also raised.

Katherine said: “There is, I believe, a cultural change needed to accept that we need to work with others to bring digital into our sector and really embrace that opportunity.

“We need to find ways to engage on institutional, organisational and personal levels to achieve this.”

An outcomes-led approach, she said, was critical for the profession as it evolved: “We need also to become more outcomes driven. This requires a change in mindset and approach using digital technologies. We need to dig deep early on to create the links between the assets we are designing and how they can best meet our future needs.”

She also stressed the need for civil engineers to learn about and be tuned in to all things data: “This means keeping in touch with what’s out there and developing learning and research skills. What data is available that’s useful to me? Analytical skills – What is the data telling us? Strategic skills – How can digital technology be used to best effect in this context?”

Other speakers on the panel included Huda As’ad,Head of Infrastructure Performance at the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, David Richards Head of the School of Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Southampton,  Brittany Harris, CEO of Qualis Flow, Dr Anna Plodowski, former cognitive neuroscientist and Knowledge Content Producer at the ICE and Paul Sheffield, President of the ICE.

Brittany focused on the link between sustainability and efficiency. “Waste in every aspect (material, human resource, time, money) is deeply unsustainable,” she said.

Technology, she said, must only be an “enabler, not an end goal  – a way of helping us make a step change”

She also stressed that the debate around skillsets and digital capability within the profession was not centred on old vs young. “Many of our strongest champions for change are ‘older’.”

Questioned about data ownership, Paul Sheffield responded: “I don’t think any part of Government “owns” this – in fact it would be too big a job for anyone to do so.

What we absolutely need though is a common system architecture so that one model will talk to another – this is particularly applicable to digital… ….twins so that the digital twin that Network rail use can “talk to” the digital twin that Highways England uses.”

He also said that procurement, to be intelligent, needed to be “more outcome focussed rather than short term cost led.  Asking suppliers to demonstrate their use of tech to help lower cost in the long term is really important.”

Another question to the panel was whether “all civil engineers will need to acquire programming and software development skills? Is that part of the ‘future of civil engineering’?

Paul Sheffield responded: “No – I think this would be detrimental – but clearly they need to understand the impact and influence that software development can have and who can do it so that we can lead the development of projects and programmes of work.”

The webinar formed part of a wider programme of work being carried out by the ICE as it explores how the profession should shape itself to tackle environmental, digital and skills challenges and to continue to thrive.

A full recording of the session will be available on the ICE website shortly.