Does Civil Engineering Have a “Next Paradigm?”

"We were no longer able to truly see beyond the horizon of what we had built and to make the necessary leaps in innovation." – Stephan Paternot

Today I read a blog post by Stephan Paternot, the co-founder of, and in it, I saw a glimpse of the point I was trying to make in my last post: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again?) of Engineering Consulting Firms. In addition to some insightful observations about the future, Paternot's article also discusses the rise and fall of the dotcoms and explains why they had to fail. The reason (and link to the post) are embodied in the opening quote above. In talking about the end of and MySpace, he said, "it was time to pass the baton and make room for the next paradigm, and the new generation of innovators who could envision it."

His post makes me wonder, are the technological changes in our society so far-reaching and significant that they could actually change civil engineering as we know it? And if so, how? I see some signs of the change that could be, but have difficulty finding colleagues interested in imagining it or discussing the possibilities. Perhaps it's because our profession still makes use of technology going back to at least the Roman times. Can a profession that uses technology and ideas that are centuries old really be on the brink of transformation? It appears most don't believe so. However, the key seems to be that the change will not necessarily be driven by the advancement in technology we use in our job. Instead our profession will have to transform to meet the changing demands of society caused by advances in technology.  If we don't understand this distinction, it could be us saying "we were no longer able to truly see beyond the horizon of what we had built to the people for whom we built to make the necesssary leaps in innovation."


The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again?) of Engineering Consulting Firms

Sewer Design FailureIt's no secret that engineering consultants have been hit hard by the economic downturn. Some firms closed completely while many firms had to lay off technical staff and institute furlough days. I would imagine the annual bonuses received by employees at these firms have also decreased. The dynamics and operations of engineering firms has always intrigued me, first as an engineer, then as an employee of a few firms, and finally as a client/customer. How and why have we gone from a time when firms seemed to pop up on every corner to shuttering of offices and significant lack of work? Did this have to happen? And how can we revive the industry and insulate ourselves from another economic disaster?


In the United States, most large infrastructure projects are built by government. And most improvements built prior to World War II were handled by engineers working for government. It seems that after World War II, there was an increase in the number of engineering firms. And the design and construction management of major construction projects shifted from government staff to engineering firms. Not having lived through the period immediately following the war, I’m not sure exactly why this happened. One reason could be the significant increase in building that occurred after the war—perhaps the government did not have the staff needed to generate and manage this volume of projects. So firms were hired to supplement existing staff. What seemed to happen over the next few decades was the shift in many smaller cities from having engineering capabilities in-house to hiring out engineering.

The Hey-Day

So over the next few decades, more and more engineering firms sprung up as suburbia moved out over the US. and more and more small to mid-size cities reduced staff in favor of hiring consultants. Not only were these firms delivering engineering planning, design, and construction management to government, but they were providing these same services to the private development sector. There was so much work generated from the housing boom that many firms ended up specializing just in delivering services to private development.

These were good times for engineering firms. During many of these years, government grant programs paid for the design and construction of treatment plants, housing provided a steady stream of work, and several transportation bills fed the design and construction of infrastructure.

The Fall

We can all imagine what happened when the economy fell. Housing and development came to a grinding halt removing a major source of revenue for many firms. Firms that had come to rely solely on private development closed their doors. Even the federal stimulus program did not help much. ARRA funds were for “shovel-ready” projects so while firms might have been lucky enough to find construction engineering work, there was no money in that program for design.

So while some firms avoided complete closure of their company, many could not avoid having to close satellite offices or laying off staff.

What Went Wrong?

Some people might want to take an easy way out on explaining the current situation and blame it on the economy. But there’s a lot going on behind this quick summary. And ignoring the issues can be detrimental to all of us because it has the potential to undermine our profession.

One reason that seems obvious is that firms were making money doing the same thing over and over. Many firms had taken the position of why change a good thing? We see one example of this in the development of GIS. When GIS rolled out into the mainstream during the 1980s and through the 1990s, few firms jumped on board and incorporated it into their delivery of services. Perhaps the thought was why take time away from billable hours to train people in a technology that clients are not asking for. So professionals in other fields such as planning began working with GIS, and eventually a whole new profession was formed by people who saw the value in learning and using GIS. Only in the last decade did most engineering consultants begin using GIS in their everyday operations. And I would guess there are still some that either still don’t use it or are just starting to train or hire staff now. What would have happened if consulting firms had realized the value early on and embraced GIS as one more deliverable? The lesson here is no one can expect to be successful forever doing the same thing over and over and ignoring new changes and innovations.

And this brings me to the next weak line in the chain. While the first seemed obvious, this one took me a little more time to realize. What I’ve more recently come to see and understand is that our profession has slowly moved away from its original apprentice/mentoring style leadership and structure. I do realize there are still many out there still practicing the “old ways,” but I have seen way too many who are not.

Back when I first started as an engineering technician (many moons ago!). I was very fortunate to work for several supervisors who still looked upon their relationship with staff as a mentor/teacher. As we worked, every one of them explained fully what we were doing and why. Each time they thought through decisions, they did so by speaking out loud to me so I could follow their thoughts and reasoning. This worked so well that when I took my surveyor in training test, all I had to do to find the answer was replay their voices as they explained each problem we had solved. Fortunately after I became an engineer, I again found myself working for engineers who followed this same practice. With all of these people, the mentoring and teaching was part of the work – it was not done aside or separate from what we were accomplishing.

I count myself fortunate to have met and worked with these people, particularly as I have been realizing this no longer seems to take place as a standard practice. The younger engineers I’ve talked with tell me stories of how they were left completely on their own to work on designs with little to no oversight or direction. They were also not encouraged or led to believe they should be asking for help.

Is this why I read posts on LinkedIn written by young engineers who have no respect for older, more experienced engineers? Is the loss of this teacher/apprentice relationship what prevents innovation and new ideas from being accepted, reviewed, refined and incorporated into the company? Have older, more experienced professionals been so busy chasing the next project that they’ve forgotten or neglected to nurture and share their knowledge with the next generation or even be aware of and open to the ideas and innovation new engineers can offer? And has this somehow contributed to the loss of business due to missed opportunities and a lack of skill sets/services and motivation to innovate?

The Fix

If you agree with the main two reasons I’ve identified above, the fix seems easy: be open to and incorporate new ideas and innovation and practice engineering as a mentoring/apprenticeship profession. However implementing these practices is not that easy—investing in new ideas and innovation with no client in sight costs money. I even had experience with a firm many years ago that had us as a client begging for them to implement more innovative designs and yet they resisted. So there’s definitely a need to change the culture and mindset of the leadership in order to allow these changes to take place.

Once firms are on board with trying this approach, they next step is to develop a process of evaluating industry-related innovations to determine if there’s an opportunity to incorporate them into the firm. If a new idea shows promise, there also needs to be a process to evaluate the costs and possible revenue resulting from an expansion of services. Fortunately some firms have already realized they need to switch gears and move in this direction.

The other fix is to return to our roots as a profession that nurtures and teaches younger members in the business. Building a properly trained staff while encouraging respect and trust helps create a motivated work force that not only delivers successful projects, but also encourages the discovery and implementation of the new ideas and innovation.


Traverse to LSU – the Online Land Surveying Community

Land surveying is a fascinating and challenging field. It's one of the few professions that involves the need to have a good understanding of a wide variety of topics. In one day, the surveyor is expected to juggle history, document and business management, searches of legal records, tree and plant identification, land development, drainage, investigative skills, dog and other animal avoidance, fence jumping, extreme weather, manual labor, understanding of property law, operation of technical equipment, geometry and trigonometry, and CAD/GIS. And this list could go on. What other profession demands such a wide variety of knowledge and skill?

I have to admit, because of these challenges, land surveying has always intrigued me. Since I first started working in this field as a surveying technician, I always dreamed of being a land surveyor. But even though I worked for many years in land surveying and even managed to get licensed as a surveyor in training, I reached a point where my opportunities were primarily in the civil engineering field. So I chose the professional engineer license instead. But land surveying has never failed to interest me, and many of my responsibilities still involve issues related to land surveying.

Fortunately there are some groups and resources online where I can still learn and stay current with the land surveying profession. The one group I would like to highlight today is the Land Surveyors United online group at This group was started up a few years ago using the Ning platform. Today I noticed they have a brand new look on their site. And based on an email I received from Justin Farrow, the group's creator, it looks like he is planning to add even more awesome features in the future such as:

  • Full-fledged Iphone/Android App
  • Some further performance enhancing platform enhancements for speed and features
  • Online training and certifications
  • Multilingual Sitewide versions of LSU dedicated to several languages other than English

So, if you're like me and are totally into land surveying, I would definitely recommend checking out this site and joining up as a member (it's free!).


ASCE Dipping Their Toe into Web 2.0

Today I received my usual e-mail from ASCE that displays headlines of stories related to civil engineering and was surprised to see ASCE was finally offering a widget for their content. Well now, that was progressive, and I love widgets -sleek, functional, look great on your Website. So I clicked on over to get my very own ASCE widget, download the html, and install it on my Website.

When I got to the site I realized, instead of creating a true widget with tools like Widgetbox or Widgadget, ASCE was offering a program that you install for your desktop. Curious to see what they had set up, I did download the program and noticed that it appeared to be a weather application. This seemed confusing because I thought I was downloading something that would allow me to search and access ASCE content.

ASCE Widget for Your Desktop
ASCE Widget for Your Desktop

It all made sense once the “widget” launched because in the end, it appeared as a small box on my screen that reported weather in my area and had Web links to the ASCE site. The only extra was an RSS display that shows up as an extra window on the screen with feeds from ASCE blogs and the ability to add other RSS feeds.

ASCE RSS Feed Display
ASCE RSS Feed Display

Now, I am an ASCE member; it is a great organization, but I have to say this is a little disappointing. Most people hooked to the Internet probably already have a weather feed; weather displays seem to be one of the first applications people set up for themselves. And for me, having direct links to specific areas of the ASCE Website sitting on my desktop every day is not really valuable. I would prefer to access the main site when the need arises and go from there. As for the RSS feeds, again, I think most people have chosen their own method of delivery for these. My choice has been igoogle.

So while ASCE has made some strides in creating blogs such as Our Failing Infrastructure, (which I am not sure is such a good title for a blog about something for which we are responsible – think how that comes across to the general public) and they have set up a Facebook group and a group on LinkedIn, they sort of missed the boat on this widget thing.

As a member of ASCE, I would see more value from having a widget created with one of those other tools mentioned above that I could display on my own Website. This method of delivery would allow all members of ASCE to become mini feeds and info points that offer better access to the organization’s content and message. It is time for ASCE to take the plunge and immerse the organization in the viral wonder of Web 2.0.

(An added tip to ASCE: please think about using Twitter to deliver the headline information that you now send out in e-mail. It would really help me stem the rising tide of e-mails.)


The Ugly Stepsister

Over the last few years the amount of information related to stormwater practices has dramatically increased. Some days it seems like every e-mail, magazine, or flyer I receive covers some topic related to the stormwater industry. However, it wasn’t until this weekend when our area had the worst rainfall event that I can remember, that I started realizing the primary focus of all this is on stormwater quality. And I am starting to wonder why there is such a comparative lack of information or concern over stormwater quantity.

Each time major rainfall events occur, people have to deal with damage to their homes from flooding/sewer backups. They probably are getting fairly tired of having to hear the engineers, myself included, talk about combined sewers that cause basement backups and about stormwater systems or levees that are only designed to handle a certain sized storm. During these events, the last thing on their minds seems to be the water quality of the receiving stream – it’s the quantity of water rushing into their home! Even in New Orleans, the situation was so bad that it seemed the regulations on water quality were waived to facilitate recovery. So at the end of the day, it makes me wonder why we are focusing so much effort on water quality and ignoring water quantity as if it is the ugly stepsister.
Example of flooding
I am definitely not saying we should cast aside the focus on water quality issues, but I think it is time our industry starts talking about and including the water quantity issues. Otherwise we are only doing half the job. We need to start questioning the standards under which we design – do they need to be updated to address any climate changes? Do we need to change them because damage to homes and businesses is greater today than in the past and could be high enough to push the design year up some? Should these discussions be done on a regional or national basis? What other professions or industries should be brought in on these discussions?

Then we need to take our analysis and recommendations to the politicians who have the obligation to weigh our advice against the wishes of the people and the state of our economy. Today, I don’t believe the public, in general, is aware of the regulations and policies under which storm sewer systems are designed; they have a false sense of security that the pipes will always handle the water. Then when they do not, everyone gets upset. Engineers, along with politicians, need to do a better job educating the public about how these systems are designed, the consequences of those design policies, and the costs for preventing or alleviating flooding. Only after careful consideration of this information can the people convey the right decision to their government representatives.

Then when all parties have weighed the evidence and considered all possibilities and choices, our industry can establish a new guideline for stormwater control that not only addresses water quality, but the quantity as well.

(And by the way, my first recommendation is to figure out a new way of referring to the type of storm event instead of saying it was a “500-year flood.” A local politician from a neighboring community was quoted in our paper complaining how he couldn’t understand how they knew it was greater than a 500-year flood because the town hadn’t been around that long. That terminology is not helping public education efforts.)