We have a chance to build back the world and build it back better, but we have to protect our resources such as our oceans when we do so. We need engineers to play their part in this new world, but we have to ensure that they always ask the 'Why', writes Patrick Calnan.


Viewed from space Earth is seen as the blue planet. Water dominants the landscape and covers about 71% of the land mass. Water is an essential component of life, providing the moisture for our crops to grow, the drinking water for our populations to thrive.

Hydroelectricity is the largest renewable electricity source in the world currently giving people access to clean power and there is a great push for hydrogen to decarbonise many hard-to-reach sectors with water the fuel source in this case too [1].

It was therefore with profound disquiet felt by many when the images were shared around the world of the ocean on fire at the Pemex Ku Maloob Zaap facility off the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico.  

The image of the circular fireball, unrelenting on our ocean surface and the platform adjacent to it suddenly highlighted our own vulnerabilities [2]. If the ocean cannot protect us against and quench fires created by manmade activities it raises questions about the other endeavours that are occurring across the world.

The Ku Maloob Zaap platform would have been designed and built to the highest standards and availed of outstanding engineering skillsets developed over decades from when the first offshore platform was built in 1947 off the coast of Louisiana [3].

But what it highlights is that engineers know the 'how', how to develop and build outstanding infrastructure, but we have to ask more of the 'Why'! Why is this piece of infrastructure needed, is there an alternative? Why will this body of work improve the society we live in now and for the full lifecycle of the asset? Why are we building this and what are the long-term ramifications?

Why now?

The time to ask these questions has never been more important. The world is facing into unprecedented challenges where engineers can make a meaningful impact for the betterment of society.

By the end of the century the world’s population will reach 10 billion. To cater for this growing population, we will have to build the equivalent of New York City every month for 40 years [4].

There is an increased onus on 'Build Back [a] Better World' (BW3) and for that to be a success it has to take a holistic approach and not be implemented with geopolitical mandates at the fore [5].

With $40 trillion at stake as the development gap we have to ensure that the resources are used judicially. This focus on infrastructure to stimulate economies is not limited to the developing world. In a post-Covid environment many developed economies are looking at infrastructure to stimulate growth, but with a fuller view on what its people need and want.

The BW3 plans are encouraging and the onus on “financial transparency, environmental sustainability and …economic development” are commendable, especially when faced with another major challenge: climate change.

Already countries representing 65% of the global carbon dioxide emissions and 70% of the world GDP have made commitments to carbon neutrality [6]. Several roadmaps have been published as to how this can be achieved. No route is easy. The costs are phenomenal, but so is the reward. Estimates show that to achieve our energy transition targets our spends to 2050 will have to increase by 30%, from $98 trillion to $131 trillion on energy [7].

Why engineers?

Engineers can help to deliver this new world, but there has to be an increased focus on using our resources as effectively as possible and not building for the sake of building. Engineers are well placed to deliver this new world for several reasons.

First, the profession is guided by a Code of Ethics [8]. There are different variations of this idea, such as the Engineers' Creed or the Engineers' Oath but in the Engineers Ireland Code of Ethics it highlights the responsibility to “the common good and the advancement of human welfare”.

Second, engineers have a strong mindset for systems thinking [9]. This means there is an inherent strength in seeing the whole problem but also joining together the systems and parts to reach a solution. In a time when joining previous unconnected system (such as the electrification of transport) to achieve our goals it becomes a more important skillset in a more complicated world.

And finally, engineers have consistently demonstrated the ability to problem solve. Whereas typically this is evident on specific projects there has to be shift from the micro to the macro. The skillsets that have been honed for delivering world-class infrastructure have to be expanded to understand and communicate effectively what assets are needed where and when.

This is an area where engineers have to improve. A greater focus on effective communication would allow the industry have a greater say in decision making. This is of vital importance.

Combining the skillset of an engineer and a chartered director or strategic management credential would allow the engineering community have a stronger voice for the benefit of the profession, the companies in which these people work and for society at large.


Lenin said there are decades when nothing happens and then there are weeks when decades happen. According to the IPCC report we have to reach net zero in terms of carbon emissions to significantly reduce the likelihood of temperatures rising above 2oC which has to be achieved by 2050.

This issue with a world recovering from a post-Covid pandemic, an ever-increasing population and a greater strain on our current resources means we are entering one of the most challenging times in human history. We need decades worth of work to happen in years to reach our goals.

In Ireland an important piece of legislation has been published in the Maritime Area Planning (MAP) bill [10]. This document sets out a means to help us use and protect our seas and oceans for the coming challenges that await, the same oceans as the Ku Maloob Zap fire occurred.  

We have a chance to build back the world and build it back better, but we have to protect our resources such as our oceans when we do so. We need engineers to play their part in this new world, but we have to ensure that the always ask the 'Why'!


1.) IEA, 'Electricity', 19 July 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.iea.org/fuels-and-technologies/electricity. [Accessed July 19, 2021].

2.) Reuters, 'Eye of fire' in Mexican waters snuffed out, says national oil company', July 2, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/fire-offshore-pemex-platform-gulf-mexico-under-control-2021-07-02/. [Accessed July 12, 2021].

3.) D Yergin, The Quest, London: Penguin, 2011.

4.) B Gates, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, 2021.

5.) Reuters, 'G7 rivals China with grand infrastructure plan', June 12, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.reuters.com/world/g7-counter-chinas-belt-road-with-infrastructure-project-senior-us-official-2021-06-12/. [Accessed July 12, 2021].

6.) UN, 'The race to zero emissions, and why the world depends on it', December 2, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/12/1078612. [Accessed July 12, 2021].

7.) World Resource Institute, 'Unlocking a Renewable Energy Future – How Government Action can Drive Private Investment', 2021.

8.) Engineers Ireland, 'Code of Ethics', January 1, 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.engineersireland.ie/desktopmodules/inventise.eil/handlers/file.ashx?id=21286. [Accessed 12 July 2021].

9.) B Lucas and J Hanson, “Thinking like an engineer: using engineering habits of mind to redesign engineering education for global competitiveness,” https://www.sefi.be/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/0160.pdf, 2014.

10.) Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage , “Maritime Area Planning Bill,” 30 June 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/a1a65-maritime-area-planning-bill/. [Accessed 19 July 2021].