Engineers! Want to build bridges? Communicate, communicate, communicate

In a previous blog entry, Zurich ETH professor Thomas Vogel commented that the validation of the work of engineers is becoming increasingly important. The “soft” skills of an engineer are equally important. Just ask any major multinational (usually in the extractive industries) which tries to carry out a project which has no support of the local communities. Armed with flipcharts, graphs and equations, the engineer tries to explain the positives that the project will bring. Just to provide an idae, a drilling rig costs around 100,000 USD per day. Six months of delay because of twenty protestors can kill your project’s economics (and probably your career).

Lord John Browne, the President of the UK’s Royal Society of Engineering, gave several lectures to young engineers, in which he advocated the importance of communication. In one of those lectures, he introduced communications as one of four crucial skills – “the ability to empathise and communicate.”

Browne argued that “engineers must appreciate the social, political and even emotional context of projects, and design solutions that meet those human needs. They must also be able to explain the benefits that a project can bring, in order to align diverse parties behind it. He went on to argue that “engineers must be aware of the political and human implications of their advice and proposals – technical perfection is insufficient. At the Academy, we are also working hard to convey the human impact of engineering to the wider public, especially to young people.

The former BP Chief Executive cites the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline which runs from Azerbaijan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. For that route, BP and its partners had to obtain the approval of 750,000 in 450 different communities. No small feat.

For large scale bridge projects, a majority of the public will usually support such projects. However, there will be some, such as LA’s 6th street bridge and the 3rd Bosphorus bridge, which will have to justify their project and listen to those who are against the project. Without a doubt, charlatans exist, aiming for more media exposure and potential funding for their organisation. However, the majority will have good points, whether it is a bike lane, or road AND rail. Usually the bridges will happen, it is whether they include more than one element of transportation option.

Don’t talk down to them, talk to them. It would be an innovative elective to have budding engineers do a mock “public consulation” which is taken over by activists representing a community to prepare them for a community up in arms over a large infrastructure project. The last I heard, they don’t teach that at University. I know a few engineers who could have used that training.

Links to the two lectures are here:

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