Is civil engineering the root of all good or evil in society

22 min read

José Francisco Sáez Rubio is a Spanish licensed civil engineer with Master Degrees in Civil Engineering, Occupational Health and Safety and Public Private Partnerships. Former Associate professor in the Spanish Army Engineering Academy, he is World Council of Civil Engineers’ appointed Executive Director since 2008 and Executive Board member of the European Council of Civil Engineers. He currently consults for Spanish Water Directorate on International and cybersecurity issues.

Jeanette: Our guest today is José Francisco Sáez Rubio. He is a Spanish licensed civil engineer with Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering, Occupational Health and Safety and Public Private Partnerships.

He is a Former Associate Professor in the Spanish Army Engineering Academy and he is currently the World Council of Civil Engineers’ appointed Executive Director since 2008 and Executive Board member of the European Council of Civil Engineers. He currently consults for Spanish Water Directorate on International and Cybersecurity issues.

He describes himself as relentlessly curious.

The purpose of this call is to show the high stakes the planet is paying for, so that all of us become conscious of how people depend on civil engineering to have their lives improved.

José, thank you so much for joining us today. I think I'd like to kick up this conversation first with describing what civil engineering is, so we know that it is dealing with something which is civil, something which is for the people. But perhaps you could give us some more information about it and maybe we can look into the various types of engineering to within civil engineering.

José: That's not easy in the end, because civil engineering is within each and every aspect of ordinary life. When you get up in the morning and you switch on the light - there is engineering behind it. If this [energy] comes from renewable sources, like for example, hydraulic engineering, I mean there's an engineer, and there is a civil engineer behind it. I mean, I would call it civil engineering, whenever you look at it and it is somehow mesmeric. Talking about what is to be brought up in this podcast, I get back my memory lane and I went back to ‘The Fraggle Rock’. I don't know if you recall it, Jim Henson, the new Henson show. I mean there, there were some people - those miniature creatures - called the ‘Doozers’ that were always building one side or the other, just like lemons, and somehow that's civil engineering behind it.

I mean ordinary life as it is conceived in order to be able to have your normal problems is a consequence of civil engineering. I mean the possibility of having yourself discussing other topics regarding your life, which is not being able to fetch for water, being able to walk to get to work safely in public transport, being able to fly or address any logistic issue, calling back for Amazon whatsoever, I mean, there's lots of people behind it, but most of them within the backs of the logistics boards, the airports, the highways, the tunnels, the bridges, is civil engineering. The fact it's something, I mean, if you were able to become allergic to civil engineering, you will always be having an outbreak because it's very difficult not working with civil engineering behind you or within you.

Jeanette: It is true that we are surrounded by civil engineering of different, you know, the various branches of civil engineering. But I think one of the most important things which we have to address, and different countries are addressing it in a slightly different way - maybe we can look into this a little bit further on - is that civil engineering and therefore civil engineers have a very important role in addressing the climate emergency. How do you think one should attack this? There is so much that needs to be done; where to start?

José: As a former professor said to me: ‘That's a good question. Would you mind bringing me the next one?’ That said, in most of the problems whenever you have to address them, the fact is that you need to be able to become aware of the problem in itself. We're somehow aware of the problem, where we're in a situation in which civil engineering is fully aware of the symptoms, can work out some possible diagnosis, but somehow has not been able to earn the trust of society.

Trust of society, whose depository are the decision makers. I mean, I think the civil engineer is too silent that there's a joke; I think you heard about it: regarding the doctors’ errors are buried, the lawyers’ errors are objected or elevated to another court, but the errors of civil engineers have to be lived with them. There's one interesting element, I'm not sure if you were acquainted with that, is that when a Canadian license engineers earn their license they are given as a gift an iron ring. The iron ring was first made for the first licensed engineers from various outstanding bridge faults that happened at the beginning of the twentieth century, and that ring was supposed to be able to make people remember what is at stake. That means we are not fully aware of what is at stake, but what is true, and that is something that can be brought up is that I'm not sure if society is willing to address it. It does need to address it, but I’m not really sure what is our role expected to be. Unless civil engineers are able to wake up and be less silent about it and make their own proposals.

Jeanette: So, José I recall you talking about civil engineering as being the society's silent steward, and I guess, by extension, civil engineers will be society silent stewards and I think there has to be a little bit of a step back in understanding what civil engineers, as you said really, are trying to do and how they should be doing it. But there also needs to be the other side of the coin, that people understand why things are so comfortable, maybe in some countries, why things are not as comfortable in others because of the lack of civil engineering and civil engineers. So I'm not sure whether the civil engineers are almost unwilling protagonists in this story. Again, I recall you saying something about Churchill that “never in the field of human struggle may be owed so many to so few”. I don't know whether you like to elaborate on that a little bit more.

José: Basically that quote is from Churchill regarding the speech after the Battle of Britain. Everybody somehow was aware of that battle, because it was a bit noisy. In this case the situation is silent, because we are stewards we are rather the major-domos. Everybody knows that a good steward is someone who is able, somehow to predict or address what are to be the needs, and also make something to not embarrass its guest by somehow patronising its decisions. That is quite difficult, basically because whenever somebody is providing you regarding some topics or elements, and this is something which is a feeling, a feeling or a perception which somehow cannot be addressed in a metric - engineers have an issue with that because you are able to somehow bring a battery of metrics, performance indicators, elements, and big money issues that would bring that the decision that you've already come to, be is the best. I think that being become humble on the ground of the option and not making the tables of truth from Moses regarding less of our projects would be much wiser and interesting. I mean, people need to know why you are doing something, because when people are fully aware of what you are doing and for what, people get fully enthusiastic.

I mean the last time when in the Americas there was a huge uproar for engineers was in the twenties. Even then Hoover, who was an agricultural engineer, finally got elected because he was able to address some issue regarding a big draught, on the Dust Bowl. It’s like what is happening for example on the other side, I mean why are there were so many doctors - because of ER. I mean, there was somehow a skyrocketing regarding people who want to be doctor basically because there was a [TV] series. One time we were discussing in ECCE in some meeting we would need something like ER, or we will be able to make George Clooney a civil engineer because the stakes or the perceptions that are given is that our activity is quite dull and is full of hidden agendas, and that can only be addressed when you bring things out in the open. So that is quite important, I mean the society needs to be able, and is what one thing, what was important on a concept of what I was familiar to me, is there is no zero risk.

Jeanette: In what way?

José: Engineers are all fully aware that there's no zero risk. Zero risk management. I mean, let's if I may put it bluntly, but the point is that ‘sh** happens all the time and every day’, and management let’s call it situ management can only is going to be able only to adapt or mitigate its happening. But it is going to happen anyway. I mean it, that is one concept from [Nassim Nicholas] Taleb regarding antifragility etc, and if you go each and every day to the casino in the end you will lose. You cannot win eternally in a row. That's said, it is very important that people, decision makers, do not feel comfortable saying that there is no zero risk until there was something called terrorism and they were directly related to the fact that the words for that not to happen. And then it was impossible because there was no possibility of a zero-risk engagement of a lone wolf bringing up a terrorist attack. But nobody has said regarding the extreme events or some issues or blackouts, etc.

Everybody takes for granted that you have a mobile in any place or in any way. Everybody takes for granted that you have tap water. Everybody takes for granted traffic lights are going to work. Why? Because otherwise that brings anxiety to the society. We are just learning through Covid. I mean an anxious society is not fully comfortable with itself.

Jeanette: It's not easier. It’s true. It's not easy how to address it, and I think civil engineers have sometimes a very weak voice.

José: This is not easy how to address it.

Jeanette: And so weak that the society becomes complacent to the role of civil engineers in the city which is a bit of a shame because if we really distil it civil engineering encompasses, at least seven, If we were to really break these down of the seventeen, sustainability development goals, that are identified by the United Nations. We are in many of these categories, education, obviously of civil engineering and if we extend this to architecture, gender equality, which is an become an issue sometimes in engineering, clean water and sanitation, what you mentioned, affordable energy, industry… there is a multitude of these of these design goals, and I wonder whether engineers really understand that their expertise within whatever they do is directly related to the economic, environmental and social conditions. They are calling it a triple bottom line, so this may seem like an impossible task, as we are saying to achieve by 2030, which is only, you know, a few years away. So, in the light of all of this where do you think the focus should? I mean, we have to start from somewhere.

José: For society or for civil engineering as a profession.

Jeanette: Let us start with, maybe civil engineers first, and we can go for society second?

José: In the case of civil engineers we need to be able to keep on pounding, keep on proposing. I mean what is not understandable is that whenever you go to WMO, for example, there are quite few engineers. When you go to elements regarding infrastructure basically the elements are based on financing etc. For example, I’ll cut it short, you need to be able to much different perspectives. The engineer needs to become the adequate gearwork to be able to bring up those stakeholders because they are fully introduced within the enterprise, they are citizens themselves, the work basically for governments and they need to hear the public, and that is the basis for the gearwork. Because most of the perceptions that I do have is that work is misaligned. The fact is there is no one size fits all solution. Context is important, and that is what we are somehow lacking whenever addressing the issues. We need to be able to bring our context or provide our context in order to be able to show what our proposals are, which is not clear for the time being. Because in the end, let's say I mean most of the drafts of some big documents are written by somebody on a first draft with a short time as a commitment or a task that needs to be finished in a short time, rather than giving it the space to breathe and to be able to address it.

I mean, the obsession is, and it is one thing which is quite interesting, when you go to the conference party, for all these big new conferences you already know by the third day that there is going to be a declaration, either the good, the bad or the ugly, but is going to be a declaration. The good thing is if there has been background work. The bad thing is if there has not been background whatsoever. You may be a very talented person who makes a draft in a declaration. They are not fully aware of different contexts, and that is important of why each and every delegation makes their hints or their comments, or their addresses, in order to be able to somehow polish that potential element that do not fit in the reality. But that also brings the issue of the famous definition of what is a camel. I don't know if you are aware, they say ‘what is a camel?’. A camel is a horse that has been somehow agreed by a commission. I'm not sure what is the issue, but the clearer the groundwork is going to make the animal much more horse than a camel but if that is the case, we need to be able to present it. I mean people may discuss things, and every day you've suffered yourself, I suffered myself a lot of conferences addressing issues of engineering to society where they are only engineers.

It is a pity, but I want to know what does an actor thinks about civil engineering. It may seem a pity, but I need to know what does my neighbour thinks about civil engineering anyway. Because those are the ones who are going to be able to address or change some of their issues or have some views to be able to help us to change this world. Because we can only change this planet those who live on it, but it is any how is not easy. I mean the only thing I can tell for the civil engineers, in that case, is hard work and keep on working and not having a problem in discussing any topic with anyone, and I mean discussing not debating.

Getting back to my Churchilliana that's one of the best quotes I've heard of him. One day when they were discussing an act, he said, “I'm very happy to be able to be aware that we have some ground for agreement, although it seems that the space for the agreement is the size of a comma, but we should work on it and be aware of the context”. I mean, there is no winning solution in engineering. I mean, that is something that we have discussed in some other place, there is no willing discussion. For example, let's go to another how are you going to say is going to be put to an end in Mexico when the biggest concrete maker of the world is Mexican and I bring in Mexico like some other topic. I mean, I don't want to somehow embarrass our Mexican counterparts, but it is understandable.

For example, the other day the discussion, I think it was somehow discussed, in another [forum]. Bamboo scaffoldings. Are they sustainable or not? They are fully sustainable. You know, but they're not cute, they're not hi-tech. They don't have the CE trademark. You know. Are you going to go to those other countries in order to be able to sell CE trademark scaffoldings? Are you going to be the one that is going to sell beds to the Japanese when they sleep on the floor? I mean, that's the issue. Once size fits all, from my point of view, and that is the basis of civil engineering is unacceptable. You cannot make whatever discussion, and I might earn some conflicting views, you cannot draw civil engineering. For me it is unacceptable or understandable even in a situation we are in because there are some other issues that come up and have to be addressed or whatsoever. You cannot be able to make. I cannot make engineering in Lesotho, without being in Lesotho. I can somehow have some hints that needs to be validated on the ground, social element. In the same way I make a stress test for the foundations, I have to make a stress test for the societies. For example, I was never aware in Costa Rica of their commitment to roads and highways. They have a real, let's call it good, obsession with highways and it's cultural because the element the family element that was brought up regarding the families in Costa Rica, which was a remote place, regarding the periods during the Spanish Empire, was the need to be able to travel through better rough terrain with their carts, and the most important thing, and an element of pride are the carts and all that has been evolving into the importance of those highways. I mean they have no interest in ports or railways whatsoever. Their need is highways because it cultural.

That element that may be seem extreme, is something that you need to be able to accept if you are to somehow plan any type of infrastructure, because in the end it is affecting the way of life of those people. I don't know if you concur with me, I may be a bit extreme, but you need to know what you're talking about.

Jeanette: No, I completely agree with what you're saying. I mean… Yes, the context in which the engineering the work of engineering is going to take place needs to be considered from the very beginning. As you said, it's useless applying techniques which we are used in Europe maybe to some parts of Africa, or you know, Latin America; may be even parts… if I compare Malta with the UK or Spain, certain things are also different even within Europe itself. So, it's as you have said, the one size fits all methodology is very short sighted and imposing a project or a type of project on a people, or a type of material: cement, bamboo, concrete, whatever steal, it's very short-sighted because we have to see the context in which this is happening. But I wonder, therefore, we have these goals that the world is trying to get to net zero carbon emissions, and you know they are not impossible to achieve in some countries, but very impossible to achieve in others.

José: I mean one of the issues that I recall, which is most difficult for the fact of the SDGs, is the SDGs themselves.

Jeanette: Ok, and in what way?

José: The issue in itself is that when you go regarding the fact of the SDGs, when you go into the innings you find that there are several elements that are difficult to address. On the fact is that first of all, there are some custodian agencies and each of the metrics have some of the metrics regarding the SCGs is that there is a problem in itself regarding that the fact that you have the goals, but it is not clear whatsoever how to be able to address the topic basically because each country needs to be able to address its own context. In the fact that the problems mean they are part of the solution, but people are not aware or not fully aware of how to even address the bureaucracy of those of those elements of the SDGs themselves. I mean you have seventeen sustainable development goals and a hundred and sixty-three performance indicators, and those performance indicators having a bigger issue, on the grounds that they need their own reports in order to be able to accomplish those elements. If we are considering that most of those countries have difficulties in achieving in achieving the agenda what should not be the difficulty is being to be able to address the bureaucracy to be able to communicate those performance indicators to the custodian agencies. I mean, it is like the same don't yell at me, I am not deaf. I'm just blind. So it is not easy on the ground. What I see is that they, that we are quite lost. Lost of touch. I mean, both a United Nations have lost touch on the ground with together with the goals themselves. Jeanette: Do you think that civil engineering could change through policy maybe? And having you know a more of a top-down approach, we are forced in a way to do certain things, certain policies that would guide the way that projects are done? Could we maybe have a policy driven sustainability rather than it coming from us? Or should it be that the engineers drive the sustainability rather than reacting to policies?

José: I'm fully prone to being active. I mean being reactive is not basically it's not efficient, and one of the issues is that there is one saying that says that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, and I always recall one element that happened to them to formally a famous Spanish engineer who has recently passed away José Antonio Torroja. Whenever that major came by to studio and said, “I want you to design me a bridge” and the engineer call him back “until you're not asking me to design a bridge, you are telling me you want to be able to cross a river. If it is a bridge what you need or not that is my point”. That is the element. I mean, those are some of the elements and need to be addressed. Neither the engineer had to address the measure in such a way, saying that he had no stake on what is to be the solution, but also the mayor had no, shouldn't be so preposterous on the ground that he clearly knew what he needed.

We need to be able to be humble as civil engineers, but to be able to provide ideas and tools that can be used. I mean, I told you some time ago, I mean it, and is something of the quote that I find quite important regarding the Post-it. I mean Post-it was supposed basically only to be able to sign our pages, and the true designer of Post-it, as a place to be able to give notes was a secretary quite in the night had to leave a post to his boss in late in the night that he had nothing else to put it over the folder and he finally scribbled something on the supposed singular of places of posts.

So, the point in the end is that the user is the one which is validating any of our proposals and the fact is that the proposals were a final user is very far away. Society and citizens are very far away from the sustainable development goals. Even us who are supposed to be able to support or propose solutions that will have an impact in sustainable development goals are quite afar from United Nations.

That is one of the elements I find the most difficult, and that is one of the elements where we need to be able to propose and get near to those agencies because unless we know how they how they work, and they know our organizations. World Council of Civil Engineers, European Council of Civil Engineers,…. We won't be able to make any matches and we won't be able to evolve or run farther away like the African saying, but it's true that we need to be proactive.

But to be able to be proactive, you need to be able to invite those people who have to listen to you, and listen, listen, open your ears and listen to them. I mean it's no use whatsoever, and I don't know that somehow makes you uncomfortable. In my case does. When you go to a conference and you as to come for the minister, and the minister goes the opening ceremony, and five minutes later he is gone because he doesn't give a damn of what we are talking about, but the point is that we are somehow discussing between ourselves elements to be activated for the society to hear us, when the only ones which are hearing are the stumbling echoes of ourselves, of our own footsteps, so I think navel-gazing is not a good idea. A navel-gazing from a satellite is even worse, an even worse idea. So, we need to be able to know what's outside our comfort zone. Basically, because citizens and society live somewhere else than where civil engineers live. Jeanette: True, well I guess civil engineers can't do it all on their own as well, I mean there needs to be a system within which civil engineers work with other professionals that design cities, that design homes, that design infrastructure, and other engineers, not just civil engineers, but are you know the mechanical, the electric. There are so many types of engineering that need to be brought together, so this interdisciplinary collaboration is perhaps going to be key in understanding and getting closer to some of these goals in as far as we can get as close to them. So perhaps José if I may, sum up today's episode and maybe you can take give us some takeaways from this conversation. Maybe you know some tips for the general public, for designers what they should do, and maybe ultimately, how authorities could bring it all together.

José: That seems quite an easy question. Why didn’t you ask before? If I had to make… I mean, some other discussions of what is a public... I mean, the public is fully aware that they are the final stakeholder and the final users.

To government I would say the same “remember you are not the user”. I mean you are only somebody who has been entitled or empowered to be able to address the needs of the citizens. Regarding design I make it clear on the topic that first context is everything, second doing the right project and doing the project right.

But I would also say something, and that is important on the ground of financing projects, and that is one of the elements that was brought up as a lack from the World Bank in infrastructure area. And that is the issue of being called the World Bank. So, I mean it is not innocent what I am about to say. I mean the obsession in banks, and multinational and funding organizations is to be able to execute their budget. Not of the quality of the project, or the need of the project, or the discussion of the project. Basically, the discussion, or the final discussion, needs to be able if all the elements regarding the bureaucracy and the adequate funding being adequately directed and fully adequately comprehended - is addressed, not the need of a citizen. That is quite important. I mean we need to be able to keep in focus what is our final goal; and the final goal, in the end, is to be able to somehow respectfully live our life so that the rest of the life after us would be able to somehow not down us for what we have already done.

And that is the basically the point of civil engineering, having context, context, context. I mean there's one quote, which I found by interesting when Gaudi architect, who to be able to create the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona which is being still being built, it was begun in 1920s, somebody ed him, but why are you trying to bring up this project? Would you're not going to finish it while you're alive? I mean he died run over by a tram. But you know what he recalled was important to me and he said, “my final client is not in a hurry” and that is important. I mean our final client, which is our planet is not in a hurry, and our personal agenda cannot go before the planet’s agenda.

Jeanette: That was a somber, a rude awakening, so to speak, that we need to really pull our socks up. Thank you so much, José for today. It is a very interesting conversation. I'm sure you had even more pearls of wisdom to share with us.

José: Thank you for having me.

Jeanette: Our guest today was José Francisco Sáez Rubio, and you are listening to the human agenda.

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