Civil Engineering “…The future is not what it used to be!”

April 14, 2010 at 8:14 am 2 comments

By Carol Metzner
President, The Metzner Group, LLC and
Managing Partner, A/E/P Central, LLC home of

“The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.”  Paul Valery

Forty years ago civil engineers were concerned with issues surrounding pollution to air, water and the environment, traffic congestion, nuclear power, energy, global warming and oil shortages. Today those issues still exist while additional issues of water shortages, deforestation,  ocean acidification, infrastructure collapses and sustainable design strategies (to name a few) confront the industry daily.

Rear Admiral Bill Rowley offered an excellent presentation at the Air University. In 1995 he wrote:

When I was growing up in the 1950’s we all knew what the 1990’s would be like. It would be a time of great prosperity. We would live in big homes in the suburbs. There would be many labor-saving conveniences for the homemaker, and robots would do the hard chores. We would commute to work in our own helicopters. The short workweek would mean lots of leisure time that families (mom, dad and the two kids) would enjoy as “quality time” together. Space travel would be common with people living on other planets. Everyone would be happy living a fulfilling life in a peaceful world. Things sure did not turn out that way. In some cases we could not have predicted the full effects of new technology. Robots are not running around the house, but instead, we have computer chips in our toasters. Our dreams in some cases would have become nightmares. Can you imagine five hundred thousand people commuting to work in Washington in their own helicopters? We were very naive about the ways of economics and human nature. The future is not what it used to be!

How does this relate to civil engineering? In the past years the civil engineering industry charged forward planning, designing, upgrading and building. The money existed for future projects. Civil engineers thought of bigger buildings, more complex bridges and interchanges, smart highways, fast rail, upgrades to existing water treatment plants, smart grids to run our power. There was/is a market in need and excitement about the advances in technology and materials to redesign our world. We have the desire, need and the ability to create.  With so many talented engineers unemployed and so many young engineers unable to find their first jobs are we missing out on the next great civil engineer of this century? When will we see the funds to get on track?

Right now, the future is not what it used to be! What do you think?

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Entry filed under: Civil Engineering, civil engineering blog, Civil Engineering Issues, Civil Engineering Jobs, The Workplace. Tags: , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. David Perrings  |  April 14, 2010 at 7:01 pm

    Yes back in the 50’s and 60’s our vision of the future was driven by the goal of putting a man on the moon and very thing revolved around that. At least it did for me. THere was future world at disney land, the future section of the museum of science and industry in chicago, walter cronkites tv show the 21st century and those school lunch boxes with futurist space scenes on them. And while we were trying to get to the moon for real we took some side trips along the way like Kubrick’s 2001 a space odessy with its mind blowing pycadelic trip thru space to same distant planet or what was that ken kessy and the merry prancsters on all those LSD trips. All i knew at the time was that the future was going to be one terrific ride.

    But then we landed on the moon while i was walking to the lake at scout camp in the late sixties and rose started to falll off the vine. We looked around and our rivers and streams were polluted, our air was a mess and if you were at disney land you probably could not even see future world anymore.

    But our vision of the future has always been fantacy, Arthur C C CLark’s 2001 has come and gone, and i think a few of his other books. Orwell’s 1984 has come and gone. In the mid nineties Disney land redid future world based on a jules vern version of the future, we actully turned the clock back a hundred or so years to try to find the future.

    Then there is today with all our to many electronic gadgets to count that take up more and more of our time to do i don’t know what. How are we supposed to fashion a vision of the future out of that. Besides some really dark nightmare.

    That is the great thing about Civil Engineering, it really has never been about a vision of the future but rather an excersize in dealing with the current real world challenges that are staring us in the face. We labor away on projects and have to consider all kinds of factors that we never dreamed of years ago. And while we may grumble and complain as we go along all of this has keep our task dynamic, interesting and challenging.

    Thank God the future is not what it once was.

    David Perrings

  • 2. Andrew  |  April 14, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Perhaps I am naive, but some of the greatest engineers were never noticed. I remember the old guard, the generation of engineers now in their 70’s and 80’s that were lucky to have some of the best and brightest problem solvers all without the need of even the most basic of computers. In particular I remember the county engineer who operated an efficient maintenance program, stayed within budget, and performed bridge inspection with a hammer and an ever scrutinizing eye. He was never noted in magazine articles, never given a plaque or pat on the back, but looking back now I see why our roads are in a state of disrepair, why bridges are operating below servicable levels, and why utility failures are all to common. The old guard is gone, and unfortunately wikipedia, cliff notes, and google do not make for good problem solvers. The new guard of engineers is intelligent, secure in their principles, but perhaps rely on the black box of software and technology a bit too much.


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