Back in 1975, when I was about to complete my college education, which is equivalent to 12thgrade in most countries, I was, like most of my classmate, faced with an important crossroad. The next stage of education, and choices subjects for undergraduate study could determine the career path for the rest of the life. In those days, if one has studied science in the first and second year, the most preferred choices were either medicine or engineering. In my case, I had not taken the biology as the minor, instead optioning for mathematics, which basically eliminated the option to pursue medical degree, and the only preferred path was to go to an engineering university and select one of several options.  At that time civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering were the most highly sought after followed by several others, including architecture and town planning. My interest and inclination had always been towards “design” aspects, so I was leaning towards mechanical engineering or architecture. But as fate would have if, I made civil engineering as my final choice for undergraduate, then leading to structural engineering as specialization in master and doctoral studies.

Now, it has nearly been 45 years, studying, practicing, and teaching various aspects of civil engineering, gradually and sometimes narrowly focusing on structural engineering. During this period, I have recognized that civil engineering and structural engineering are really the backbone of the built infrastructure. Practically anything built for any purpose has some aspects of civil engineering behind it. It’s hard to think of any other engineering disciplines that can operate or function without the civil engineering providing the buildings, structures or other infrastructure needed for it. When thinking about what civil engineering discipline might look like in next decade and beyond, and what the civil engineers will or should learn and practice, I am inclined to think of a few challenges and opportunities that our profession may need to embrace, to maintain its fundamental place in the built environment and remain relevant in the rapidly changing world.

The impeding climate change impacts

The first and foremost challenge and concern of the present and the futures is of course climate change, both the adaptation and mitigation aspects. Most of civil engineers have not been taught or exposed to the aspects of civil engineering that directly effect and contribute to climate change, even though it is one of the fundamental disciplines that can help to adapt and mitigate the effects. The design and construction of all infrastructure, be it dams, water resource management system, irrigation systems, bridges, roads, tunnels, buildings, or any other physical structure; climate change should be a key consideration. This needs to be a part of the curriculum and a on the mind and focus of practicing engineers. 

Environmental Sustainability and Disaster Resilience

The second closely related aspects are the environmental sustainability and disaster resilience. In the big scheme of things, almost every built infrastructure, which is within the overall preview of civil engineering, effects the environmental sustainability either as a cause or an effect. The enormous carbon footprint of the materials used is construction is well known, and the environmental impacts of the infrastructure projects has gained increasing scrutiny and has become an essential part of project evaluation. In the same way, almost every built infrastructure has some relation to disaster resilience.  Be it from natural hazards such flood, hurricane, draught, earthquake, or manmade effects sus as fire, blasts, overload, inappropriate design etc… Every decision made by the designer of the infrastructure project, every step taken during the construction and every system and process adapted during its operation and management effect both the environmental sustainability and the disaster resilience of not only the structures but of the communities they serve. The teaching and practice of almost all civil engineering discipline should and will need to explicitly recognize this

Digital Adaptation and Transformation

We are all aware of the impact of the new technologies and developments, such as extensive use of data mining and analytics, business intelligence, various forms and facets of Artificial Intelligence, proliferation IOT, increased use of robotics, and the potential integration of AI with bioinformatics and nano devices.  Civil engineering in its broad spectrum and specifically in certain specialization within, have been using traditional computing and digital systems for a long time, and are to some extend adopting and integrating such new technologies into their own knowledge and application. However, this needs to happen at a much faster rate and more explicitly, and universally. The civil engineering curriculum in universities will need to include more exposure to such subject and probably replace some of the traditional, and possibly redundant topics. The practicing engineer will need to rapidly learn and embrace these technologies to leverage the design, construction, and operation of the infrastructures. The use various forms for virtual reality such as VR/AR/MR, drone imaging as well as use of 3D printing are and can be used to a great advantage.

The Human Side

As in any other engineering and science subject, the technical aspects of the civil engineering discipline often take major part of the educational content, and the practical application. However, the changing expectations of the society from the built environment is increasingly to be environmentally friendly, socially acceptable, economically prudent, easily maintainable and having an “end of life” plan. While, the civil engineers often do consider the life cycles aspect specially for large projects, but more explicit handling of these requirement in education, planning design and execution can greatly increase the acceptability of the civil engineering as a relevant and valuable discipline. Often, engineers in general and civil engineers, as no exception lack the ability to effectively communicate and present and project their work to the public in an “lay-person” terms that can be appreciated by them for its value to them. Civil engineering not only helps to bring necessities to the societies through systems such as canals, drains, roads, buildings, bridges, towers, arenas etc., that support the infrastructure for power, transport, housing, irrigation, food, logistics, sports etc., but also provide safety and resilience against hazards. This needs to be communicated and emphasized in an effective manner.

Having the Cool” Image

The civil engineering is one of the fundamental engineering disciplines to have developed, early in the history. While that makes it very important for the physical infrastructure development, it has also acquired the image of being more ‘traditional”, and not as “cool” as some of new discipline such as AI or bio-medical engineering or nanotechnology, or robotics. This mean that civil engineering might not be attracting the attention and interest of the top performing or innovative high school graduates in the new generation. There is a need to not only to improve and enhance the image of civil engineering and make it attractive to the top performing students but also to ensure that civil engineering keeps up with latest development in technologies, social development, as well as economic attractiveness, and creates a high self-worth in the people who adopt it as profession.

Civil engineering needs to take ownership and leadership on the key challenges facing the humanity in the future for it to be relevant and to continue its integral role in the development of physical infrastructure for the society

This article originally appeared in TECHNOLOGY: Civil Engineering – Next Decade & Beyond, published by AIT Solutions, Asian Institute of technology