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Does the education of a built environment graduate prepare them for the future?

Posted: 28th October 2015

Professor Barry Clarke,

Champion for Life Long learning at the Construction Industry Council

The education of UK built environment professionals is world class through the further and higher education sectors working with industry. But is it fit for the future or more importantly will it create resilient communities and infrastructure to meet future needs? This was the theme of my talk at the 2015 CIHT annual summit on skills.

There are many examples of resilient infrastructure and communities some of which cope by accident and others which are designed to cope. For example, the UK is near the top of the international league in potential economic damage due to flooding. The effects are catastrophic for those directly affected but they recover; they are resilient. This is not necessarily the case in many parts of the world where flooding can change communities for ever through loss of life and permanent damage to their infrastructure.

An assessment of a communities exposure, susceptibility, ability to cope and adapt, that is an assessment of the risk they face, shows that the UK is 37 out of 165 countries in terms of risk; ahead of the USA but below many European countries. This is at a time when the rate of environmental change is increasing: - rising sea levels and increase in magnitude and frequency of weather related events. The pace of change is also affecting the way we work – by 2050 most of the jobs we know today will have disappeared due to artificial intelligence; computing power is increasing tenfold every decade; the use of the internet is accelerating; more than 50% of the population is now living in an urban environment, the majority of which is on the coast or next to waterways thus exposed to the effects of climate change; resource demand is increasing but becoming more scarce; and energy demand is increasing but current energy sources are not viable.

Therefore, the questions are:

  1. Will built environment professionals be needed in the future?
  2. If they are what skills will be necessary?
  3. And is the current education preparing the graduates for the future?

Infrastructure supplies water, food, finance, health, governance, emergency services, communications, energy and transport, which are critical to the wealth, health and wellbeing of society yet we rely on infrastructure that is up to 2000 years old. The fact is that it still exists and works is because it has been adapted to cope with changes in technology, environment, regulations and society’s aspirations. The fact that this is only recognised when it fails to work is a testament to the skills of the built environment professionals over the years. But is this enough for the future?

We design our infrastructure to codes which are based on historical evidence and currently updated every 25 years or so; they aim to produce safe, reliable and economic structures. Yet these will have to be sustainable and adaptable if they are to meet their design life. Changes to codes react to changes to the environment, technology and society’s expectations but this is not sustainable. We cannot continue to design for all eventualities. We can reduce community’s exposure to change but we have to help communities to be less susceptible, be adaptable and be able to cope.

The built environment professionals of the future will have to be more visible in society; they will have to take a leadership role in supporting communities, engaging them in the design process so that they appreciate the infrastructure they depend on and how they can cope if the level of service drops due to some catastrophic event.

The professionals will have to take responsibility for their designs and not just rely on codes as the threshold. Carbon will become a design criterion; they will have to create infrastructure that is adaptable in an uncertain future; operating costs will be minimised; they will create smart infrastructure recognising that the sectors are interdependent; they will use various design approaches taking account of risk to deliver adaptable infrastructure systems.

In 1700BC a builder was put to death if a home fell down and killed the owner; safety was the design criterion. By 15BC, structures had to be safe, useful and beautiful; criteria that survived until the end of the 20th century. At that time the concept of sustainability was introduced to make better use of resources. But that is not enough. Built environment professionals of the future will have to engage in political and ethical debate as we deliver an infrastructure that provides for an increasing population in a carbon free world in which uncertainty is the norm as resources are in decline.

Built environment professionals have always been able to adapt as they progressed through their career because of their education, training and commitment to professional development. However, in order to create resilient communities and infrastructure to meet future needs, graduates will have to have a habit of mind that enables problems to be solved when solutions are not obvious; an ability to learn; an ability to identify hazards and assess risk; an ability to generate and disseminate knowledge; an effective communicator with society at large; an ability to deal with transformational change and uncertainty; and a leadership role in society as built environment professionals face the many challenges of tomorrow. Does our education deliver graduates with those skills?

Contributor: Professor Barry Clarke is the Chair of the Construction Industry Council Education for the Built Environment Group (E4BE) , which represents all the professional institutions in the built environment and champions a holistic and inclusive approach to the development of the built environment. Barry is also a Champion for the CIC Lifelong Learning Committee

If you would like to join the discussion on education and skills in the built environment please join the Education for the Built Environment (E4BE) group on LinkedIn