Disruptive Civil Engineering Opportunities

John Eddy July 21, 2017

5 min read

Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Data (IoT), Code, Cloud, Civil Engineering. Which one doesn’t belong? They all belong and a couple more—BIM, BEM, Automation, Parametric Modeling.

Our world is fast becoming a place where everything that can be coded will be coded. The physics that governs the decisions we make as civil engineers can and is being coded. Arguably, we’ve been creating codes within our profession ever since someone ran a set of calculations, with varying inputs, and put these in a table or graph for all of us to use as a desk reference. That someone was likely an engineer’s engineer in the proverbial search for efficiency, simplicity, and accuracy. Alternatively, they could have been a little lazy and became fed up with running the same calculations over and over again. Let’s not judge. Let’s celebrate the outcome.

These ancient coders were engineers looking to better their condition and the condition of their profession. Today, coding the work we do is being done not by engineers, but by people who see an opportunity to disrupt a profession that hasn’t moved fast enough to disrupt itself. There is plenty to discuss about defending our profession from the disruption that is happening, but that isn’t nearly as much fun as looking to our future.

Exciting isn’t the first term used to describe civil engineering, but it just might be soon enough. Infrastructure that talks back to us will become the norm with smart assets. That dam you designed will be reporting on its stresses and strains in dry times and wet. Those un-permitted, oversized loads that challenged the fracture critical members of your steel bridge for the umpteenth time are no longer secrets buried deep in the structure. The performance of your stormwater quality design based on best management practices from storm to storm and season to season no longer gets washed out to sea.

The ready access to data collection allows us to find out how well our designs are living up to expectations. (A little scary, but let’s take the high road and say that such knowledge is a good thing.)  Processing this data also allows us to gauge the appropriateness of the codes and specifications that govern our designs. We can now see the built environment as a true laboratory, with thousands and thousands of specimens, all functioning with different mixes of inputs and variables. Civil engineering research will move to where it belongs, in its native condition, in the real world subject to real-time demands.

Let’s take on a new subject—automation. If you are an engineer that designs, automation is an opportunity to become a fabricator or a contractor. Why not?  Automation of the fabrication process is accelerating; trucks are driving themselves and sophisticated assembly is left to robots. Pushing dirt around, bending steel, boring tunnels, and laying pipe aren’t nearly as intricate as assembling a $70,000 automobile.

If you are a fabricator or a contractor, automation is an opportunity to become an engineer that designs. Coding the codes, specifications, and guidelines that govern civil engineering, plus changing a law or two governing the profession of engineering, opens up the opportunity for just about anyone to become an engineer. Add some cost information, include sources for the material and labor, bolt on some construction sequencing and scheduling parameters, gain access to bonding, and, soon, anyone can be their own designer, contractor, and owner.

We’re not talking about the past and Michelangelo’s Flying Machine, when the general population had little understanding of how science and engineering work, let alone possessed an appreciation that the advancement of technology would allow Michelangelo to get there. For the civil engineering profession, we’re talking about paths to a future that today’s general population can describe, even if it makes them uncomfortable. As civil engineers, this is our space and this is where we need to get comfortable. That comfort is found by owning at least our space and, if we want it, more.

Where do we start?  How about where the money is or, better put, where the value is. Let’s start by embracing the value that our clients will realize if they grew to accept the use of technology in the planning, design, procurement, and operations of their engineered assets. Value can be found in building a comprehensive model in the design phase that is used through construction bidding, fabrication, construction, operation, and decommissioning. Value can be found in the exploitation of that model by all that have access to it along the infrastructure asset’s lifespan. Value can be found in not relegating the sophisticated models we are building to 2-D representations called drawings.

You’re probably thinking, “What about liability with this all-purpose model in so many hands?” Just like everything about today’s changing world, the legal and insurance professions are going to have to embrace change because it benefits their clients—the owners of infrastructure. Attorneys and insurers count engineers and contractors as their clients, too. What an amazing opportunity for attorneys and insurers to make lots of clients happy!

Image courtesy of Ramboll Sweco ANS.

Perhaps the most exciting reimagining of infrastructure is the promise that the built environment will better co-exist with the natural environment. Measuring impacts and capturing those data points isn’t reserved for the things we design and build. Measuring impacts in the natural environment is getting easier, more accurate, and, most importantly, comes with data that brings context to the recorded changes. We design and build a road, record the traffic volumes and vehicles types, measure air and water quality, look up weather patterns, record the health of a sensitive species in the adjacent wetland, make adjustments to the stormwater system, and gather the data all over again. How about that for a basis of design of the next road adjacent to wetlands within days of the data becoming available. Imagine the positive change we can bring about if this feedback loop is available for all that comprises the built and natural environment.

John Eddy, PE, ENV SP

As the leader of Arup San Francisco’s Infrastructure Practice, John has the privilege of engaging in projects as diverse as:

Fortunate to have client’s as diverse as Silicon Valley tech giants, Amtrak and State, and City governments, John brings a multi-faceted perspective to planning and designing our built environment. He is a member of the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure’s ENVision Review Board and has served on Prospect Silicon Valley’s Transportation Advisory Board.

John’s contribution to Arup’s global research effort on urban mobility includes exploring opportunities to positively adjust the built environment as self-driving technology expands into the vehicle fleet.

Licensed as a professional engineer in seven states, John holds a bachelor’s in Civil Engineering and a Master’s in Geotechnical/Structural Engineering from Syracuse University.

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