Canadian Consulting Engineer

The silence is deafening

Engineers often complain that they have too little influence in society. Decisions on huge infrastructure projects are made by politicians, and the politicians listen to the media. Yet the media and t...

August 1, 2010   By Bronwen Parsons

Engineers often complain that they have too little influence in society. Decisions on huge infrastructure projects are made by politicians, and the politicians listen to the media. Yet the media and the public relations machine that feeds it virtually ignore what engineers might have to say.

Typically the press releases on major construction projects will have nary a mention of the engineering firms involved or the difficulties they tackled. Take Waterfront Toronto’s Lower Don Lands, for example. Here’s a project that is going to relocate the mouth of a major river downtown, that involves flood protection for more than 230 hectares ( “a potential half-billion dollar flood risk”), which requires remediating tonnes of contaminated soil, that needs new transit lines and will see building over 22 city blocks. Wouldn’t you think it is a bit of an engineering story?

Yet in the recent promotional material and the media stories about the precinct, it’s the urban planners, landscape architects and architects who are trumpeted and who get to tell the story. There’s lots of news about “creating vibrant new communities,” “reconnecting people with the lake,” and winning architectural awards. But there’s scarcely anything about the technical issues the engineers have to overcome. To find the names of the consulting engineers requires delving through layers of information on the website.

With few exceptions, this scenario is repeated across the country. Engineers are nowhere to be seen or heard whenever a major construction project is announced.

Why should this be? And what are the ramifications?

Actually, I have come to suspect that in many cases engineers secretly like it that way. They prefer to keep a low profile and stay out of the media limelight because then they avoid any public controversy that might arise.

Yet this reticence has consequences. It means that engineers don’t wield the influence they should when it comes to debating major issues. Discussions are rife in our cities over topics like public transit routes, wind energy, waste treatment and air pollution. These are at heart technical issues, yet it’s the environmentalist groups and activists who get their point of view heard. Engineers are largely silent.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect consulting engineers to talk frankly in public about specific engineering projects. Obviously they can’t speak about a project unless the owner invites them to. And they’re unwilling to be seen criticizing others’ projects even when they know something doesn’t make sense. Indeed it is against the ethical rules. Also, consulting engineers are in business and have to consider future work prospects and have responsibilities to their employees.

Still, the deafening silence we have now seems wrong. Until engineers become more vocal and communicate more effectively with the public, the great challenges that they overcome to realize new developments in our cities remain hidden. All that the public sees are the slick fly-through videos and exquisite architectural drawings of the finished product. They only learn about what lies above ground after the fundamental work has been done. That’s a shame because civil engineering is a fascinating story, and it should be heard.


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