Hear from Tim Ibell about the changes he’s making to degree guidelines to encourage more divergent thinking in the sector and put the climate emergency at the centre of engineering education.
Tim Ibell is the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering & Design and Professor of Structural Engineering at the University of Bath, and a former President of the Institution of Structural Engineers. He helped bring Engineers Without Borders UK to the University of Bath in 2005 by supporting student requests for Chapter funding and subsequently incorporating Engineers Without Borders UK into the curriculum.
What led you to engineering?
Well, I was good at STEM subjects and engineering was a choice that led to a career. Also, I grew up in South Africa, and at that time there were a lot of gigantic bridges being built along a famous road there called the Garden Route. And I looked at them and thought – I want to be part of that, I want to be a structural engineer, I want to build bridges!
What inspired you to get involved with Engineers Without Borders UK?
My first contact was in the early 00’s via The Student Voice in Bath, where I started to hear about Engineers Without Borders. Then when I became Head of the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering in 2005, the student body came and asked for funding to be involved with Engineers Without Borders UK.
What I have found astounding about Engineers Without Borders UK, in the most brilliant way, is that they moved on so rapidly from the first-world country approach of projects and parachuting in ready-made solutions, to being part of the solution wherever you are in the world. That was so forward-thinking and ahead of its time.
Has your involvement with Engineers Without Borders UK influenced your work?
At the moment, I’m not teaching but, when I did teach, I always used to include an ‘Engineers Without Borders project’ – the idea of working with a community somewhere in the world to solve problems. This would make the students think about what skills gaps they needed to plug to solve problems together. This was before the Engineering for People Design Challenge was started.
I previously chaired the joint board of moderators, which is the civil engineering accreditation panel for the UK. We have made enormous changes to our degree guidelines, to put the climate emergency at the centre of all education in civil engineering. When we made those changes, I was convinced that Engineers Without Borders UK needed to be brought into the governing body to help.
From the moment Emma Crichton, Head of Engineering at Engineers Without Borders UK, came in, she asked the most incisive questions: how do you know that the people assessing the universities know what they’re doing in this area? Can they push these new guidelines? We’re now running workshops to help upskill all assessors, including myself.
There’s a focus on concrete in your published works – is embodied carbon a big issue with this material? What are the possible solutions to decarbonising the materials needed for structural engineering?
First of all, we need to make sure that the concrete we already have in place stays in place and is maintained. We can’t afford to demolish it and essentially release that embodied carbon and require new materials. A lot of my research over the years has been about extending the life of concrete structures.
Five per cent of the planet’s carbon emissions come just from the production of cement – that’s a huge number, it’s more than aviation and shipping combined. So if we are going to build with concrete, we need to make sure we only use it where it’s needed. Therefore, the sort of structures that we see are the wrong shape: we need to use curves and shapes, not just columns, beams and flat slabs. They would be more beautiful, and would only use half the concrete, but they would be more expensive if we worked to the shapes the laws of physics want, so they don’t get built.
The moment we move from monetary costs towards carbon cost as a measure, that objection goes out the window.
We simply must start using less. By 2050, best estimates suggest we will only produce 50% of the renewable energy we will apparently need. That means we need to use half the amount of energy that we presently think is essential – so we need to use less stuff. Building decisions must be made to prioritise developing the world where it needs to be developed, and not where it’s already developed.
We should build upwards on existing structures, not create new holes for new building sites – every time you build a new hole in the ground, you fill it full of concrete for the foundation, and half of your embodied carbon is there in the ground, which you never see. If we repurpose and extend the buildings we have, by relying on previous structural overdesign, we won’t need so many new buildings.
What do we need to do to change the engineering workforce?
In civil or structural engineering, divergent thinking is a central required skill – the ‘what if’ questions which encompass big lessons and choices. Convergent thinking skills are also essential, of course, to prioritise ideas. If we are going to attract more people from across society, we should play to the idea that impactful engineering relies on both divergent and convergent skills. This will be an attractor for people don’t want to choose between divergent and convergent thinking. People talk about engineering as though it were one amorphous thing, often associated only with convergent thinking skills, but it’s not.
People would realise what engineering actually is. It’s not hardhats. It’s not mud, and it’s not equations. It’s completely different. We’re trained to think that engineering is all about logic, but it’s incredibly creative.
What advice would you give to young structural engineers?
Engineering is a caring profession. It is not just another STEM subject. We are about societal change. And those are the engineers we need. We want somebody that comes not just fixated on maths and physics and chemistry, but with other attributes – those who see themselves as wanting to do good for society. It would be utterly transformative to the profession.
Traditionally engineering has been egotistical – about fast cars and tall buildings, as examples. It needs to move to represent sustainable transport, assisted living and wellbeing, as modern examples. We need to represent society properly if we are to serve it.
Just imagine how refreshingly different our cities in the UK would be had they been designed by people with physical disabilities, or pregnant women, or homeless people over the past 200 years, instead of predominantly by able-bodied, white, middle-class, middle-aged men. By looking at this profession through the kind of lens Engineers Without Borders UK promotes, it can be more inclusive, creative and truly benefit all people and the planet.
Tim Ibell: Dean of the Faculty of Engineering & Design and Professor of Structural Engineering at the University of Bath, and former IStructE President