'Supporting the national recovery' was the theme of the opening session at Engineers Ireland's recent national conference, and where members heard Enterprise Ireland's Leo Clancy say that firms that don't embrace digitalisation will be left behind; while Naomi Long highlighted how unexpected events can drive processes of rapid change within society; and TCD's Linda Doyle said a multifaceted approach would be needed to solve societal challenges. 

Engineers Ireland president Professor Orla Feely told delegates that "in the new world we find ourselves in, post a major pandemic and Brexit, and the difficulties that we are facing with climate change, the expertise of our professional engineering membership will be very important in finding practical and cost-effective solutions to the significant societal challenges we will face now and into the future".

Professor Orla Feely, president, Engineers Ireland

She added: "Sustainability needs to be at the fore front of our minds. The reliable provision of energy, water and materials in ways that allow us as a country and the industries located here to meet our sustainability targets is an absolute essential. Sustainable industry practices are likewise essential.

'Engineers need to be all-rounders'

"Digitalisation is transforming how and where we live, work and learn. Digital and data infrastructure and defences against cyberthreats are also vital. With digitalisation an integral part now of our engineering sector, today’s engineers need to be all-rounders.

"Engineering, with its capacity to develop solutions to society’s biggest challenges, has a clear role to play in the development of more sustainable solutions.

!As a professional body with 25,000 members, we will act as a leading voice for sustainability. Under the environmental and social obligations of our Code of Ethics, (and as an organisation that supports the UN sustainable development goals), our members shall, for example, promote the principles and practices of sustainable development and the needs of present and future generations, and shall foster environmental awareness within the profession and among the public.

"Engineers Ireland has developed a Sustainability Framework which is being delivered as part of our organisational Strategy and progress will be communicated to members. 

"Engineers Ireland stands ready to play its part in Ireland’s green and digital recovery and it will be engineers like you, who will be integral to the delivery of projects that will support communities which are pivotal to Ireland’s prosperity, sustainability and connectivity, said Prof Feely.

Naomi Long MLA

Engineer Naomi Long MLA, leader of the Alliance party, highlighted how unexpected events can drive processes of rapid change within society. She also spoke of how digitalisation has supported the work of Northern Ireland's justice department. 

'Reliant on engineering solutions'

Long said that as a people we can be very resilient but, nonetheless, when faced with major challenges our resilience is reliant on engineering solutions and adequate infrastructure. She added that engineering enables communities to thrive, and also helps to build a better future for people.

The profession should work together more with other experts and get involved in political conversations and collectively apply its knowledge for the greater good, said Long. Engineers have excellent transferrable skills and ‘the natural engineering response – that can-do attitude’ is so important in finding solutions for societal issues.

Provost of Trinity College Dublin, Prof Linda Doyle

Newly appointed provost of Trinity College Dublin, Prof Linda Doyle told the conference that we can use creative arts practices to interrogate technology and to think through research from different perspectives. She said that artists can make the invisible, visible. 

Multifaceted approach

Prof Doyle called for a multifaceted approach to solve societal challenges. She said that the engineering profession should work together more with other practitioners – in the arts and beyond – and collectively apply its knowledge for the greater good. 

Enterprise Ireland chief executive officer Leo Clancy

Enterprise Ireland chief executive officer Leo Clancy told the conference's member-engineers that organisations that do not embrace digitalisation will be left behind in all respects, including in their ability to attract talent. 

BIM adoption

"As an engineer myself, I really understand the value of this profession from the perspective of those working within it," Clancy told delegates. "It is a wonderful career and the opportunities for personal fulfilment through problem-solving and continuous learning are what I enjoyed most about my engineering years.

"As somebody who has spent the past eight years working globally on industrial development, I have come to appreciate even more the impact engineering has on society and the trajectory of the global economy and our future lives.

"I would also like to recognise the collaboration between Engineers Ireland and Enterprise Ireland which has been very fruitful over the years. One example of this is in our recent shared commitment to digital innovation through increasing BIM adoption in the construction sector.

Emergence of Covid

"Companies across the country have been affected in various ways by a myriad of market and operational issues over the past 18 months. Some have thrived (51% of companies in our base grew exports in 2020), others have suffered badly and some have tread water to survive.

"The pandemic struck at a time when Brexit was starting to impact companies and was a second major hit to many of those firms.

"Through that time, my new colleagues worked directly with industry, deploying support to those companies worst affected, including financial planning support, advice, liquidity and other interventions. Up to June 2021 we directly deployed about €200 million of support to 1,600 companies, sustaining 27,500 jobs as well as providing Covid-19 related guidance to more than 8,500 firms.

"Our teams in Ireland supported companies not only financially but with strategic advice to help them emerge from this pandemic stronger than before. And crucially, when clients couldn’t visit new markets our 40 overseas offices provided local insight and expertise and connections for them to continue selling and growing business. As a result, we saw our client exports hold steady, which was very encouraging, and growth in some sectors such as construction which saw export sales grow by 12%.

"Thankfully, we are now coming out the other side of what has been a challenging and uncertain period for industry. This week [mid-October 2021], we are hosting ‘International Markets Week’, a week of networking where Irish client companies of EI engage deeply with our 180 people spread across the world to set out clear plans and actions for further development. We have themed this week as simply 'Global Recovery, Irish Opportunity'.

Digital and green recovery

"The recovery is under way and we need to make the most of it, accelerating Irish business towards opportunities that are emerging across the world. And this recovery will be different.

"We have undergone a digital revolution over the past 18 months. As much as many of us regret not seeing colleagues and the limitations that we have had to endure, we have learned that much of business can be done online. That has underpinned nothing short of a global economic miracle. That everything could be so utterly changed overnight, and the impact be as contained as it has been, is certainly down to unprecedented intervention by Governments but also to the ability to continue to run business and public services remotely.

'Created incredible technologies'

"The digital underpinnings of this performance are down to the engineers who created incredible technologies that could be scaled almost seamlessly, the invisible digital roads and bridges constructed overnight to keep economies running.

"As we recover this trajectory will not recede but will continue to accelerate. Business is changed utterly and the future is digital. Firms that do not embrace digital will be left behind in all aspects including, notably, their attractiveness to talent. Digital will mean different things for different levels of company:

  • For an SME in a business that is non-technical it may mean use of tools for workforce productivity and internal efficiency
  • For mid-sized growing firms, the ability to gain a digital edge through remote selling and delivery can mean exploring markets without expensive presence on the ground; they can also scale their business quickly with an unlimited potential cloud-based infrastructure
  • For companies in more traditional markets, digital may well mean integrating advanced artificial intelligence to operations or to products, opening up cost advantage and / or new revenue streams

"Whatever the application there is no going back and no standing still. If Irish firms don’t move fast on these areas, others will.

"I am heartened this year to see that the biggest challenge facing our generation and future generations, that of climate change, has finally achieved close to a global consensus in terms of its threat and the need for action. In Ireland, government has approved our Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act during the summer, committing Ireland to achieving a climate neutral economy by 2050.

'Reputational damage'

"The local and global drive for carbon neutrality will require every business to act. There will be no room for delay and companies that do not have a plan will face additional cost, reputational damage and other harms. Customers for products and services are reacting fast also – nearly every sophisticated buyer today requires assurance of the action being undertaken by those they buy from – not having a plan will put companies outside their own markets.

"In both areas there are challenges. Unfortunately, the focus on these areas, while improving, is not where it needs to be. In our annual survey of over 2,000 clients economic impact this year we found that:

  • 70% of food and industrial clients do not have a formal digital plan and
  • only 22% of all clients have a formal climate action plan

"This must change, and quickly.

"The good news is there are major opportunities also.Those companies that adopt digital and embrace sustainability in all its forms will find a very rich vein on potential customers in global markets.

"If you produce products that are efficient, delivered from Ireland to anywhere, at the cutting edge of digital technology your costs and market prices go down and your market becomes global overnight. 

"If you can assure your prospective customers that your products enhance the customers supply chain carbon impact, you will compete for business.

"So, building digital and sustainability into your products is good for the bottom line. Having that reputation is also good for your company’s market value and for your attractiveness to prospective employees.

"Engineering is at the heart of human progress across so many fields and nowhere more so than these two areas.

Jobs, income and growth

"Ireland’s economic success over the past 30 years has been as a result of good economic policy and a strong business community but it has been underpinned by a skilled workforce. If we can continue to grow our economy, not just taking account of but leading on, the two key agenda areas of digital and green, we can achieve further growth.

"GDP and export growth are not an end in itself. It is only useful when it stimulates more national income through tax revenue and expenditure in communities across this island. Growth must also create jobs and economic opportunities for individuals in increasingly high value employment.

"Increasing the number of jobs in engineering is a key objective for Ireland. These jobs are highly skilled and at the heart of generating value for companies, not just exploiting it. More engineers mean more innovation and more capacity for growth. This is also a global market that will continue to be constrained. The world has a huge demand for engineering professionals, and this will intensify in the coming years.

'Encouraging the continuing professional development of qualified engineers'

"One particularly welcome element of this conference session is that I am in a gender minority among my fellow engineers who are speakers – Minister Long and provost of Trinity College, Linda Doyle. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Minister Long but I have known Linda for years and I know she is a passionate engineer and change maker. With such wonderful leaders and exemplars available to us I hope more Irish women will choose engineering as a profession.

"This organisation and so many of its members put huge effort into promoting the career with young people as well as encouraging the continuing professional development of qualified engineers. That is a commendable and extremely important focus to have. It is essential that we continue to develop the size, quality and real-world relevance of our engineering workforce.

"The prize is huge – a continued place among the fastest growing economies in the world and economic prosperity for our next generation that is greater than we have seen before.

"Combining the factors that have led to our growth in recent decades with an engineering-led excellence in digital and sustainability will be key to making it happen.

"It has never been more important than now that engineers provide key leadership on the journey to Ireland’s economic future."