By Carl Archer
I joined the Civils team at Cundall’s Newcastle office in September last year after graduating with a degree in Civil Engineering from Newcastle University. Last week Kuan Koay, a Graduate Engineer in the Structures team who is also a friend of mine from university, and I were invited by Newcastle University to attend a presentation and roundtable discussion with Professor Lord Robert Mair, President of the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE), ICE delegates, professors from the university, industry professionals and Civil Engineering students with a total of 18 people.
Presentation from University Professors
The afternoon began with an informal presentation from two of the university’s leading professors showing the President the work and research currently being undertaken in the north east. At the heart of this is the Urban Sciences Building (USB) and the wider site of Newcastle Helix (formerly known as Science Central). The USB is a new state-of-the-art university building with sustainability at its core. This building is being used for cutting-edge research in various sectors of the built environment including but not limited to green infrastructure and SMART roads, research that could influence our designs in the future.
Newcastle Helix is a £350 million project, jointly owned by Newcastle University, Newcastle City Council and Legal and General. The concept is to develop the site and the buildings on it to be a ‘living laboratory’ where full-scale, long-term data can be collected and used to improve the way the built environment is designed.
Part of this project is the Urban Observatory, consisting of 1000 sensors across the city and collecting more than 50 types of data. More than 1 billion observations have been made and about 17GB of images are taken each day. It is the largest set of publicly available real-time urban data in the UK.
Newcastle Helix also hosts the UK’s largest Smart Grid project. The site will be integrated with full-scale smart grid, along with a £2 million energy storage test bed and a Smart Grid Lab to allow the researchers to better understand the system. A high-speed electric vehicle (EV) charging station of 50kwh can also be found on site which can fully charge an EV in 30 minutes. Homes for the elderly are also proposed for Newcastle Helix with a design input from healthcare workers, ensuring the homes will meet the needs of the users. Overall, Professor Mair seemed very impressed with the research and ideas that were presented throughout.
The second half of the afternoon followed on from the presentation with a roundtable discussion regarding digitisation and its implications for the future civil engineers. The variety of people in attendance made for an interesting discussion with people at different stages in their careers and coming from both industry and academia, from The President of the ICE to students in their 3rd year of university. There was much debate about what universities should be teaching in the digital era in order to best prepare future engineers to meet our future needs. This ranged from hand calculations and designing from first principles to which software’s should be taught to coding and whether we’ll be taught more like software engineers.
The conclusion of the discussion and the main thing everyone at the table agreed with, is that the Civil Engineer of the Future will face challenges and problems that previous generations haven’t yet encountered. In order to face these challenges in the digital age and rapidly changing world, a sound understanding of engineering principles will still be required but there will be a need to have flexible and adaptable skills, in addition to an open mind to new solutions.