“The world is changing because of Covid and we have a unique opportunity to help shape this new world in a sustainable manner if we can devise and implement the technical solutions required,” said Engineers Ireland's Maurice Buckley in his presidential address Engineering in a changing world: COVID-19, Brexit and Beyond. In Part I of a three-part series, he elaborates on the three great challenges facing the sector.
(In Part II, the president discusses standardisation, disruptive technology and cross-cutting expertise. In Part III, Buckley elaborates on the cross-cutting topic of engineers in management in addition to how they can influence public policy.)
Maurice Buckley is an electrical engineering graduate from University College Dublin and is the executive chairman of the OPW, where he is leading large-scale investment programmes to improve Ireland’s flood defences and public buildings, both modern and heritage.
Maurice Buckley, Engineers Ireland president 2020-2021
A Chartered Engineer, Buckley has worked for the Boston Consulting Group in Munich, held senior management roles in industry, and is the former chief executive of the NSAI (National Standards Authority of Ireland), where he was responsible for the country’s standardisation, certification and metrology activities.
Buckley began his address: "I am very proud to have been elected president at the AGM in June and to give this address tonight is a great honour. I am very grateful that so many of you have joined me tonight for this talk.
"The presidential address is a very special tradition of Engineers Ireland that goes right back to 1856, some 20 years after its founding. I only realised when I went researching this, that the first three presidents, who were all chairman or commissioners of the Board of Works, did not give such a talk(1).
"Here I am, 160 years later then, the first chairman of the OPW(2) to be president of Engineers Ireland and to have the honour of delivering a presidential address!
"Back then it was the only formal report to the membership, but of course now we have an annual report, an AGM, and regular newsletters to serve this role. The presidential address has evolved into very much a personal perspective by the incumbent president on engineering, the institution, and the big issues of the day.
Eclectic career to date
"So what will I be covering? Well, in keeping with my somewhat eclectic career to date, it will be quite a wide-ranging talk built around how engineers and Engineers Ireland should respond to the changing world we live in as we go through the Covid pandemic, the potential consequences of Brexit, and the implications of climate change.
"I want to offer a perspective on the gains to be had from involvement in standards and, I think you will all agree, that digitalisation and disruptive technology is both a challenge and an opportunity we should be talking about.
"I believe we are very well placed in Engineers Ireland to respond to all of this and I want to share my thoughts on how we can develop even further, especially through our Sectors, which I see as the lifeblood of the organisation.
"Let me put in the disclaimer right at the beginning. The points I will make are purely personal opinions. I am not speaking on behalf of either the OPW, where I work, or Engineers Ireland. I don’t claim to have the answers, but I hope to give you some interesting insights, provoke your own thoughts, and to encourage you to share my optimism for how we can shape our future.
"This might all sound a bit lofty, so I am going to bring things straight back down to Earth for a moment, by introducing the humble kitchen dishwasher to help me illustrate some points later on! There is a reason I picked it, which will become clear.
Three great challenges
"You do not need me this evening to tell you about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our society and our economy. We have been living through it for six months now, and will be for some time to come.
"I am not an economist and am not going to speculate on the economic cost or the time to recover. No matter what analysis you take the impact will be severe and recovery will take a number of years.
'No matter what analysis you take the impact will be severe and recovery will take a number of years'
"What is important to us now, is that our government and governments across the world are investing heavily to sustain the economy and employment to the greatest extent possible.
"We are seeing major societal changes in how we work and how we interface with technology now. Changes like this are an opportunity for engineers to be innovative and make sure that this investment produces the results sought quickly and cost effectively.
"The second immediate challenge is Brexit and it looks at this time as though we are facing a hard Brexit, which will impact Ireland severely. Companies will face disruption selling to the UK market but, also, in their supply chain with currency exchange rate uncertainty, possible new tariffs, customs, VAT changes, extra administration, and disruption to deliveries.
Engineers' vital role
"Engineers can play a vital role here in sourcing, verifying, and approving new non-UK suppliers. We can deal with any product adaptation necessary as well as certification and validation issues.
"This process has been under way for four years now, assisted by Enterprise Ireland and other agencies, but there is still a huge over-dependency on UK suppliers, especially in sectors like construction.
"Personally, I see Brexit as a great opportunity for Irish small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as it will encourage companies to develop wider EU markets and supply sources much earlier in their development, which will bring benefits. I believe Brexit will cause short-term pain but a definite longer-term gain.
"Some time ago, I started a company printing technical labels in Co Roscommon and, like so many others, I looked to the UK market for expansion as soon as we got off our feet.
"It was so easy to hop on a plane to Birmingham or Manchester and visit customers speaking the same language with broadly the same business culture.
Should have looked to Europe or Scandinavia earlier
"I did build up a market and later set up a UK subsidiary. There is nothing wrong with that but, in retrospect, I wish I had looked earlier on to continental Europe or Scandinavia as well. It might have been harder in the beginning, but it would have opened up a much larger and more dynamic market in the long term and with a greater business potential.
'It has been brought home to me in the OPW when I see the incredible scale of the border control infrastructure – at Dublin port and Rosslare – that we are racing against time to have in place by the end of the year'
"Brexit will encourage managers to look beyond the neighbouring UK market. Language and distance are no longer the barriers they once were and our business culture has evolved to be much closer now to that of central European countries with whom we also share a common currency.
"COVID-19 has knocked Brexit off the front pages, but it is, in many ways, just as threatening. It has been brought home to me in the OPW when I see the incredible scale of the border control infrastructure – at Dublin port and Rosslare – that we are racing against time to have in place by the end of the year.
"Our response to the COVID-19 and Brexit challenges was the subject of my ‘Call to action’ for the Engineers Ireland Sectors upon my appointment as president in June. There are strong proposals emerging from that call and I will come back later to talk some more on the progress to date.
Responding to climate change
"In addition to coronavirus and Brexit, I want to add a third challenge to this list – responding to climate change. This might seem to be a longer-term issue, but it is included here for a couple of reasons.
'It is a time of huge societal changes brought about by the pandemic, and a time of change is always a time of opportunity.'
"The phenomenon of climate change is not new but the urgency of addressing it is being increasingly recognised in Ireland, in Europe, and around the world, with some notable exceptions.
"In the midst of the pandemic and Brexit challenges, we have a unique opportunity to make significant and lasting changes to reduce emissions, improve our environment, and to slow climate change. It is a time of huge societal changes brought about by the pandemic, and a time of change is always a time of opportunity.
"It is really heartening to see the clear intention at EU level, at Irish government level, and locally, here within Engineers Ireland, to ensure that any new stimulus investment to recover from the pandemic is undertaken in an entirely sustainable way.
"This will assist in achieving the 7% average annual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade, which was outlined in the Programme for Government.
"In the OPW, we are working to design and build defences to protect people and properties from flooding. The investment required over the next 50 years to protect our coast from sea-level rise will dwarf the €1 billion currently being spent on protection from fluvial, or river, flooding.
'The investment required over the next 50 years to protect our coast from sea-level rise will dwarf the €1 billion currently being spent on protection from fluvial, or river, flooding'
"We must build resilience to climate change into all our infrastructural investment now and work with countries all around the globe to reduce emissions and mitigate the change.
"The OPW works with data and models produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)(3) which sees a 1m sea-level rise as a realistic high-end scenario corresponding to a 1.5 degree in global warming. For a three-degree temperature rise, it is possible the sea level could rise by twice as much with devastating consequences.
'Engineers will lead the way on introducing the new technologies needed and we must ensure that, through Engineers Ireland, we give clear, early input into preparing for the societal changes involved.'
"That is why we in Engineers Ireland declared a Climate Change and Biodiversity Emergency earlier this year. That is also why we must use the impetus of the recovery stimulus now to make the right long-term sustainable investment choices.
"Our 2020 national conference focus on combating climate change(4) gives us a great opportunity to develop the leadership role our engineering sectors are keen to fulfil. We can see already that members, and the leading engineering companies represented by those members, are focusing their efforts more strongly on climate action and sustainability across all their activity.
"Three years ago in his presidential address, Kieran Feighan spoke of how road usage would change significantly with the advent of electric vehicles and eventually autonomous driving. It seemed a long way away then but now we are in a period of intense change where such changes look very real.
"Engineers will lead the way on introducing the new technologies needed and we must ensure that, through Engineers Ireland, we give clear, early input into preparing for the societal changes involved.
"As far back as 2003, the theme of our national conference in Belfast(5) was ‘Delivering Sustainability’. My predecessor, Marguerite Sayers, focused strongly on climate action last year. We have a real opportunity now to make an impact."
In Part II, the president discusses standardisation, disruptive technology and cross-cutting expertise. In Part III, Buckley elaborates on the cross-cutting topic of engineers in management in addition to how they can influence public policy.
Author: Maurice Buckley, Engineers Ireland president 2020-21, is an electrical engineering graduate from UCD and is the executive chairman of the OPW, where he is leading large-scale investment programmes to improve Ireland’s flood defences and public buildings, both modern and heritage. A Chartered Engineer, he has worked for the Boston Consulting Group in Munich, held senior management roles in industry, and is a former chief executive of the National Standards Authority of Ireland, where he was responsible for the country’s standardisation, certification and metrology activities.
1.) John Fox Burgoyne (1835), John Radcliff (1845), and Harry David Jones (1846) were the first three presidents of ‘The Civil Engineers Society of Ireland’/ ‘The Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland ICEI’ and Commissioners of the Board of Public Works, later to become the OPW. The first address was given by the fifth president, George Willoughby Hemans, an experienced railway engineer, on December 9, 1856. The fourth president, Richard Griffiths, picked up the tradition during his second term as president in 1861. (Source: Ronald Cox and Dermot O’Dwyer, ‘Called to Serve’).
2.) OPW, Office of Public Works, previously called the ‘Board of Works’.
3.) International Panel on Climate Change.
4.) Engineers Ireland's national conference, 'Engineering Climate Action: Solutions to combat climate change in Ireland', was held, virtually, on October 21, 2020.