ICE and Innovation & Research: a look to the future

Roger Venables, IRF Editor writes: In Issue 100 of IRF, we carried Mike Chrimes’ reflection on the history of ICE’s involvement in research & innovation in civil engineering. It therefore seems more than appropriate to carry in this starter issue for IRF’s second century a look forward in the same area by Mike’s successor, Nathan Baker, Director, Engineering Knowledge at the Institution of Civil Engineers.

With the volume of data about our environment and infrastructure ever increasing – and seemingly the pace of change – there is a growing demand to be able to deal with the challenges in civil engineering and the wider infrastructure communities with increasingly innovative, yet still straightforward, solutions.

The global challenges that we face – such as climate change and mitigation and adaptation to it, increasing populations, increasing resource scarcity and the digital revolution – are compelling us to approach problems from a number of different angles and in different ways.
In addition, it seems that experience is being gathered earlier in people’s lives – the definition of experience is changing as people are less specialised and less concerned about detail – often due to a reliance on experts and the use of regulation and standards.

Engineers have a huge opportunity to lead innovation. They deal with real problems (we are sometimes allowed to call them problems, not just challenges!) that need solutions that work today and can be adapted and continue to be used in the future. They understand the detail as well as strategic issues in infrastructure, and the need to be able to set standards. Most importantly perhaps, engineers see the value their solution adds to people’s lives on a daily basis.

So what drives innovation? My view is that, first and foremost, innovation comes from constraint. If there are boundaries or issues that have not been solved, innovative thinking can get around the block to get to a solution. The second component in innovation is to take a risk or two and do something that has not been done before. In the 19th Century, engineers all dealt in risk to solve problems within constraints. Those constraints may have been about materials performance, time, money or the environment but the engineering ‘gods’ thought innovatively and took a calculated risk – but it was risk.

The issues of the modern world require engineers to take a similar approach. The global challenges we face are enormous and can only be solved by creative thinking, effective risk management and sustainable application.

For civil engineers and the ICE this means we must work collaboratively, not just with each other and our supply chain partners but with other sectors, stakeholders and decision makers.

Materials technology, people management, academic research and risk mitigation have all moved on. As we become a global community, the diversity of thinking required to solve problems means that we must all embrace change, promote diversity and work together.
We need also to recognise that great ideas can come from anywhere – to exclude them just because they do not come from our current perceived field of expertise is wrong. Academia, by definition, is pushing the boundaries of thinking – this needs to be embraced and harnessed and be applied to today’s and tomorrow’s solutions.

The Institution of Civil Engineers is the logical home for the bringing together of this thinking and the facilitation of networks and conversations to drive innovation. As the facilitator, the ICE will make a step change in bringing stakeholders together to debate and solve issues. These issues will not just focus on today but also seek to identify issues for the future, to enable debate, planning and mitigation strategies to be implemented.

The ICE learned society is a network of subject experts and special interests. We are moving towards being the home for innovative thinking and, as we begin to think about the ICE bicentenary in 2018, we are reflecting on the lessons of the founders – to promote the art and science of civil engineering.

We should try to identify what lessons we have learnt from them that they applied successfully to drive their generation’s revolution – and those that we have forgotten. From that, we need to draw out what we can then apply to our revolution. The ICE evolves to the environment in which it works, but a constant is the need to innovate and solve societal problems to improve people’s lives.

ICE knowledge sits within the minds of the people with whom we interact and, in the modern digital world, we can make it more accessible than ever before. Increased use of technology and bringing the lessons of the past to life will enable innovation to flourish and for civil engineering to come to the fore within the minds of decision makers and the public alike.


For further information, please contact Nathan Baker, Director, Engineering Knowledge, Institution of Civil Engineers (020 76652246; E-mail: For further information on the ICE’s activity in Innovation & Research, visit


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