Nathan Baker highlights how the Institution of Civil Engineers is working to inspire a new generation of civil engineers

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) is celebrating a rare milestone in 2018 – a bicentenary. In 1818, three young engineers met in a London coffee house and founded the world’s first professional engineering body. Since then, we have grown to over 90,000 members in more than 150 countries around the world.

Along the way, our members helped bring to life historically significant rail projects such as the first intercity passenger railway, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and the world’s first underground railway, the London Underground. We continue to support engineering professionals working across today’s mega projects and in asset maintenance.

But we need to look to the next generation of talent to build and maintain our future rail legacy, particularly as digital transformation continues to create new opportunities. Unfortunately, our ability to attract new entrants to the profession is by no means guaranteed. Our research has found that more than half of all adults and more than two-thirds of young people in the UK have no idea what a civil engineer does. More than 60 per cent of both adults and young people cannot identify a single civil engineering project.

Therefore, it is vital to promote the positive work that civil engineers do and the contribution we make to society. Many young people, from all backgrounds, aspire to make a positive difference in the world. If we tell them that civil engineering allows them to do just that, more young people will see it is a rewarding and creative career.

Consequently, our bicentenary celebrations throughout this year have focused on reaching out to the general public, informing them of the ways that civil engineering directly transforms their lives and safeguards the future for their families.

At our One Great George Street headquarters in London, we are hosting the Invisible Superheroes exhibition. Real-life engineers feature as their cartoon superhero alter-egos, keeping the world running and society safe. They include both historical figures, such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel as Captain Innovation, and those from the present day, such as Parthajit Patra as Metro Man, who built India’s first underground railway system. Using state-of-the-art technology, the exhibition tells the story of these unsung heroes behind some of the world’s most amazing engineering projects.

Through our 200 People and Projects campaign, we are further celebrating inspirational and world-changing projects from around the globe and the people behind them. This has included key railway infrastructure projects around the country, such as the Forth Bridge and HS1, highlighting the direct impact they’ve had on people’s lives.

The projects are being published throughout the year on the What Is Civil Engineering? pages of the ICE website, which provides comprehensive advice and guidance for those hoping to pursue a career in civil engineering. With written profiles and video content, the 200 projects join a growing library of case studies to provide inspiration for young people, and their families and teachers.

Local communities have been overwhelmingly positive in their response to the projects already revealed, taking pride in their significance and celebrating their recognition. Many more people have been reintroduced to projects that they previously overlooked or took for granted and are learning more about the benefits they bring.

There has never been a more pivotal time to demonstrate how civil engineering can make an impact. In the UK, we still find communities that are underserved or lacking in critical infrastructure, restricting access to education, jobs and opportunities. On a global scale, the problem is even greater, with one in eight people living in extreme poverty. This is further compounded by the effects of climate change and the pressures from a rapidly growing population.

Civil engineers are ideally placed to use their passion, creativity and problem-solving skills to tackle these pressing challenges. Our work can help lower waste and carbon emissions. The infrastructure we build will enable better health, education and employment outcomes.

This is why the Global Engineering Congress, the most ambition event in ICE’s bicentenary programme, is taking place in October. Working with the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, we are bringing together the world’s civil engineering organisations for the first time in a generation. The most able engineers from over 150 countries across the world will meet to determine how the global engineering profession can make the delivery of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals a reality.

The Congress will hear from senior experts from around the world, including Sir John Armitt, Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission; Cris Liban, Executive Officer, Environmental Compliance and Sustainability, LA Metro; and Michèle Blom, Director General, Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, The Netherlands. The extensive programme of roundtable discussions and workshops will tackle topics such as promoting the use of intelligent technology in transportation engineering, energy retrofitting in transport, and strategic approaches to improving diversity.

As the world’s oldest professional engineering body, the ICE has a duty to lead this debate. Over the next two years, the ICE will build a practical plan that allows the global engineering profession collectively to turn words into action. We are not shy in our ambitions for what civil engineers can and should achieve.

Civil engineers don’t just build assets; they provide solutions to people’s needs and give them a better quality of life. The railway doesn’t just connect point A to point B; it gives people access to their livelihoods and the means to visit family and friends in faraway places. And we can do all these things for people while cutting carbon emissions and protecting the environment.

This is the vision that ultimately will inspire more young people to join our profession. For centuries, civil engineers have been at the heart of social and economic progress, literally paving the way to modern life. Tomorrow’s engineers will continue to change the world for the better.

Nathan Baker is Director of Engineering Knowledge at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). ICE has reached a rare milestone in 2018 – a bicentenary, and ICE 200 is a perfect chance to celebrate the institution’s longevity, recognise the profession of civil engineering and most importantly the thousands of members who make the institution what it is.