Note: I’ve been rolling some ideas around and, while they aren’t solidified as much as they could be, I hope they are at least thought-provoking. Here I present something for you to ponder as we enter a new year of possibility.
I remember considering what I would be when I grew up, and initially it was between two choices: a doctor or an engineer. Realizing I’m too sensitive to handle the emotional side of being a doctor, engineering won. However, as I reviewed course catalogs I briefly considered one more option: being an urban planner. Ultimately I decided that I’d be better served with what I saw as the more tangible skill set that comes with an engineering degree, and in my, although sheltered, perspective, the prestige of being an engineer. Today I see how valuable I would be as a professional if I had done both.
There is a trend in our industry to be more collaborative. For example, in building design and construction, owners; architects; structural engineers; mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers; and contractors are working more closely together than ever. The “master builder” of the old days has been reincarnated as a collaborative team that shares information, evaluates conceptual designs early in the design phase together, and thinks about the long-term sustainability of their project from unique perspectives. The process of building information modeling (BIM) is pushing technology solution providers to imagine new ways of working and they are delivering, making collaboration more easily executed than just a few years ago. Further, engineers are realizing they need to know more about architecture, and vice versa.
Planning a neighborhood, a city, or a region, or deciding how to spend limited funding for infrastructure can be even more complex, since significant social, economic, and environmental issues are at play along with the basics of what to build and how to build it. The master builder approach is needed here as well, but as with modern buildings, no type of professional has the education or experience to make the best decisions alone.
There often is collaboration between politicians, planners, and city councils, but most often non-engineers are the ones most involved. Civil engineers are tasked or hired to conduct studies, evaluate options, and make recommendations, but aren’t truly making decisions. How can we secure our seat at the table?
As a profession, we need to build avenues for cross-discipline learning with related professionals such as landscape architects, planners, public policy experts, public works professionals, and city administrators. I believe that with a shared understanding of the various professions’ perspectives and skill sets, a more collaborative approach will organically develop. Once you understand what someone can “bring to the table,” you’ll invite them more often. And it wouldn’t hurt for us to push some students into earning degrees in related but distinctly different professions. A civil engineer/urban planner or a civil engineer/public policy expert would definitely be invited to the decision-making table! Perhaps there are schools offering a combination degree already? I’d be interested to hear.
To ensure the security, economic prosperity, and health of our nation’s citizens, infrastructure and well-planned communities are essential. Civil engineers need to be central to leading our nation to repair its problems and create a vision for the future. Maybe by championing the need for collaborative decision-making, we’ll not only improve our infrastructure and cities, but also raise our profession’s stature.
Shanon Fauerbach, P.E.,