Maurice Buckley says he couldn't have imagined being anything but an engineer. He regards digitalisation and sustainability as being the sector's most important trends right now; takes his hat off to computer entrepreneur Clive Sinclair; is an enthusiastic supporter of the European project; loves most sports –especially Connacht rugby – and would like to see toy shops display LEGO® and Meccano, prominently, in the girls' aisle. 

Maurice Buckley, Engineers Ireland president 2020-21

When did you first become interested in engineering?  

It was not so much my love of maths and science at school but my abysmal lack of interest in anything else on the curriculum that led me to engineering. 

For as long as I can remember I liked making things and fixing things, especially electrical stuff – still do! They are strong indicator symptoms for the engineering bug. 

Although my parents always encouraged me to make my own choices, I guess the subliminal effect of having a civil engineer father was a big factor. It’s not easy for any 18-year-old choosing a college course to understand what engineering life entails, but I had that advantage. 

I used to love going in with my dad to his office some weekends, with the rows of drawing boards and the smell of ammonia from the old-style printer. 

Who were the mentors who helped you on your way? 

There is no doubt a good teacher can really have a lasting positive impact and I had several of them in the STEM subjects. I would credit, though, my first boss, Mike Brosnan – an inspiring person to work for – with being a defining influence on my career. The company that we worked for was the ‘inland’ part of the US Kollmorgen Corporation. It was based in Ennis, Co Clare, and it made servo motors and controllers to sell all over Europe. 

'I remember talking to a senior engineer in a German car maker who said that the biggest threat to the internal combustion engine was not electric vehicles but car-sharing apps, which may greatly reduce the number of cars sold.'

He gave me and the young team of design engineers the confidence and ambition to push ourselves hard and develop really innovative products. I met my wife, Mary, in that office so perhaps I see that period of my career through particularly romantic, rose-tinted glasses! 

Also, Ann Riordan – former CEO of Microsoft Ireland and chairman of the National Standards Authority of Ireland (NSAI) when I joined – was hugely helpful in helping me to make the transition from an SME to public administration. Not easy! 

What do you consider are the most important trends in engineering right now? 

I think digitalisation and sustainability are the defining topics of our time. Engineers need to be at the forefront of digitalisation – and are in many cases.  Software has become a sophisticated discipline of its own but it has its origins in the world of engineering and many programmers and analysts still have an engineering rather than a computer science primary degree. 

I’d encourage every student to engage with programming at every opportunity, from machine code to writing apps, and to keep on top of the latest developments for as long as they can into their 20s and 30s. 

I remember talking to a senior engineer in a German car maker who said that the biggest threat to the internal combustion engine was not electric vehicles but car-sharing apps, which may greatly reduce the number of cars sold. 

The example just shows how pervasive digitalisation is and how important it is for all engineers to master this competency.

The second big challenge that engineers are facing is the sustainable use of the limited resources of our planet. Technology is central to advances in health, lifestyle and prosperity, but we need to become better at managing the impact we have on the environment.   

'I have always been fascinated by sustainable energy generation and would love to have the opportunity to be involved at some point with offshore wind, hydrogen, or wave energy – all areas where Ireland has such a huge climate and geographical advantage'

Lithium-ion battery technology is opening all sorts of wonderful new possibilities but as those batteries are used ever more widely, we have to worry about the sources for the lithium and cobalt needed.

Now that society and our profession are more focused on sustainability, scientists and engineers will develop new technologies to address such environmental shortcomings. That is happening right now, for example, with the search for alternative battery materials, like sulphur with comparable performance to lithium-ion. 

Personally, I have always been fascinated by sustainable energy generation and would love to have the opportunity to be involved at some point with offshore wind, hydrogen, or wave energy – all areas where Ireland has such a huge climate and geographical advantage. 

Renewable energy will one day be as important to the Irish economy as tourism is to Spain and Portugal. 

Regarding climate change what urgent actions would you like to see being implemented over the next 10 years?

I am always a little uneasy talking about climate action as I feel our profession could and should have done more over the past 50 years. We are, after all, the inventors of the diesel engine and the coal-fired power station, which are now being blamed for causing excessive emissions. 

OPW Cork flood defence image: Fitzgerald's Park: New landscaping creates a flood barrier which also encourages biodiversity

I am delighted Engineers Ireland and other engineering bodies are taking a strong public stance to arrest climate change and promote the sustainable use of resources, but now we have to figure out how to apply this in practice. Certainly, developing low-carbon emission technologies for energy, heating and transport is a good start.

We must do our part in Ireland along with every other country to reduce emissions and slow down temperature rise and climate change. However, we must also be realistic and recognise that significant climate change is now unavoidable and invest to protect our communities from the effects of sea level rise and more frequent, more damaging, severe weather conditions. 

'Renewable energy will one day be as important to the Irish economy as tourism is to Spain and Portugal.' 

In the Office of Public Works (OPW), we are investing €1 billion over 10 years in 120 or so individual flood defence schemes to protect towns and villages from fluvial, or river-based flooding. 

With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other expert bodies predicting sea-level rises of 1m by the end of this century, an even greater challenge in Ireland is going to be coastal erosion and the risk of flooding to our major coastal cities and towns including Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway.  

We will need investment on a scale rarely seen in countries – other than in the Netherlands – and we must start now to design and develop the massive engineering projects which will be needed in 50 years’ time at the latest if we are to protect and retain our vibrant coastal communities. 

Who is your engineer hero, or the nearest you have to one?  

When I was in school, the exciting tech products everybody wanted to have were digital watches and pocket calculators. The 'James Dyson' of that period was a man called Clive Sinclair, who left school early and never qualified as an engineer, but was responsible for some wonderful engineering products like miniature radios and TVs and some of the first simple home computers. 

Clive Sinclair

I always admire people brave enough to break the mould and do something completely different, and Sinclair – now in his 80s – certainly falls into that category. 

Is there any one engineer you wish was better known?  

I was intrigued a few years ago when Engineers Ireland was involved in producing a film about Peter Rice, an incredible Irish engineer who was involved in the design of many truly innovative buildings such as the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris, which I have always admired. His story was highlighted by that film and he certainly deserves greater recognition.

Georges Pompidou Centre, Paris

There are many present-day Engineers Ireland members who are very impressive when you get to know them and realise their expertise and achievements. Engineers are a modest bunch and tend to shy away from promoting themselves.

A person who comes to mind with a story that could inspire many young engineers is Ed Harty who, as CEO of Dairymaster, led one of Ireland’s most innovative companies in agri-tech. He was very involved in organising our national conference in Killarney about five years ago and maybe we can persuade him to become more involved again now. 

Dairymaster, 'one of Ireland’s most innovative companies in agri-tech'

What are your favourite engineering feats – either in Ireland or globally? 

Maybe not the greatest engineering feat ever, but one that always appeals to me is the Olympiapark in Munich, Germany. We lived in the Bavarian city for a number of years and I used to love visiting the complex build for the 1972 Olympic Games, whether with visitors from home or for a big football match in the stadium there.

Olympiapark in Munich, Germany

It is a series of clear canopies strung from tensioned cables that from a distance look like a tent canvas. Despite the association of those games with the terrible Black September terrorist attack, I always find the stadium park itself a beautiful piece of engineering and architectural design (led by Frei Otto and Guenther Behnisch, respectively) and it still looks so fresh and innovative decades later. 

Then you have the BMW headquarters on the other side of the Mittler Ring, with its blue and white Bavarian logo on the roof-top. Wunderbar! 

Work-wise, is there any country or experience, and what you learnt there professionally, that stands out? 

For as long as I can remember, I have been an avid fan of Europe and the EU project. Decimalisation in 1971, joining the EEC in 1973, joining the euro in 2002 were all milestones I associated with increasing positive European influence on our small island.

While I have travelled in America and Asia, there is nothing I like better than visiting European countries and cities, taking in the different languages and cultures across the continent.

I remember as a recently qualified, young, single engineer on a sales visit to Sweden one week and France the next when my manager coyly asked me would I mind staying in either Stockholm or Paris for the weekend, at company expense, to save the cost of flying me over and back home. Oh, the sacrifices I’ve had to make in my career!

Mary and I lived for a year in Fontainebleau, France, while I was studying for an MBA at INSEAD; and for six years in Germany. We have terrifically happy memories of both countries, even though they are very different.

As an engineer I just had to admire the precision of the Germans and their inbuilt discipline in following systems and procedures to the letter. There seemed to be a 'DIN Norm' for everything. 

That frustrated me at the time because I prefer more spontaneity and the element of unpredictability. Years later, however, when I became CEO of the NSAI, I found myself looking to that experience in Germany in setting targets for Ireland, and as an aspiration for Irish engineers.

There is huge competition between German companies to even get their engineers onto their national mirror committees. In Ireland, with fewer companies in any specific industry sector, we can get those engineers not only onto the NSAI committee but directly onto the European and international expert groups, with all the benefits of early information and first-mover advantage that participation brings.

'It was amazing to be in Germany at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989'

Stand-out experience living abroad? It was amazing to be in Germany at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The emotion of that occasion with families reuniting after 50 years and history being unwound before our eyes was something that I don’t think I could have fully appreciated had I not been there. 

Digitalisation, or 'smart' engineering, is very much to the fore now and today's engineer needs to be a hybrid –would you agree? 

Yes, indeed, and not just a hybrid of the engineering disciplines but the engineer has got to be a potential entrepreneur and manager too. I spoke about this during my presidential address in September.

Technology – especially coupled with digitalisation – frequently disrupts markets and disrupts the status quo now, so the engineers behind that technology have to be equipped to move easily into the new field to help exploit those opportunities. 

We still need specialists who become true experts in their field, but I believe our engineering education should prepare students to become generalists working across many business areas during their careers. 

At present, Engineers Ireland is trying to build links to external bodies such as the Irish Computer Society so we can reinforce that link between engineering and ICT, and I am a strong advocate of that. 

What book is on your bedside table? 

The best book that I have read recently is I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. It is a great suspense novel and its theme about spreading a pandemic virus could hardly be more relevant right now.

Lying on my bedside locker is Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, which was a Christmas present and which I look forward to reading after all the Trump/Biden drama of recent months.

Our infrastructure is being badly affected by severe weather events – what measures do we need to adopt to help mitigate the damage? 

This question is close to my heart as the head of the OPW, the lead agency for Ireland’s flood defences. We can protect towns and villages built on rivers, but it is very difficult to defend single houses in rural areas and farmland.

It is heart-breaking to see people dealing with the aftermath of a flooded home and climate change will make these devastating events more common. 

In England, they are already working on the ‘Thames Estuary 2100’ project to address the impact of sea-level rise and, in Ireland, we will need a Dublin 2100 plan, and ones for Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford and many of our coastal communities.

These are huge societal and financial challenges for the country that we must begin to address now as sea level rises of at least 1m must be reckoned with by the end of this century.

Government and the OPW are already doing the preliminary data gathering and analysis needed so that policies and strategies can be developed. The challenge of coastal erosion and sea-level rise will be one of the greatest challenges for the future generations of Irish engineers. 

What is the one piece of advice you would give to somebody starting out in the profession? 

Stay flexible and be ready to respond to the opportunities your life will offer – often when you are least expecting them. 

You have talked about how engineers need to be more focused on entering the higher echelons of management, can you elaborate?

When you look at the senior managers running big companies around the world, you will see a high percentage of engineers and accountants in that number. This is something to recognise both in engineering education and within engineering bodies like Engineers Ireland. We have to 'up our game' in how we prepare our young and mid-career engineers for top management.

Our strengths are our rational, logical thinking, an ability to assimilate detail, solve problems and make evidence-based decisions. However, we need to recognise our weaknesses, too. Our attention to detail can restrict our ability to see the big picture and to comfortably delegate. In modern business as in life, the message is as important as the facts and engineers have an inherent tendency not to spend as much energy on communications as we should.

Engineers Ireland is offering more management-focused CPD courses and seminars, which is a good development. Equally, the colleges are building more management skills into the core engineering programmes.

I’d encourage engineers to consider themselves as managers first and foremost – be that project managers, people managers or company managers. 

If you weren’t an engineer, what might you have become?  

Engineering has given me a great career, good friends, and lots of fun along the way. I can honestly say I struggle to think of any career I could have followed that would even have come close. 

If you could, is there any one measure you would introduce to help improve the gender balance within the profession? 

LEGO® and Meccano on the girl’s aisle at the toy shop. It really annoys me to see such gender stereotyping of our children from an early age. 

Looking back over your career, is there any one project that stands out? 

A very small step for mankind, but a giant leap for me as a young design engineer was to be involved in the first generation of brushless DC servo motors that changed the world of robotics and automation. I moved to Germany as a product manager marketing the same products I had helped to design, which is a privilege few get to enjoy.

I might just mention one other – a very different type of project while I was a management consultant with the Boston Consulting Group in Germany. After reunification, we were tasked with very quickly trying to link failing East German companies with western businesses to avoid a situation of mass closures and unemployment.

Behind the Iron Curtain, 'every business was told what to make, what price to sell it at, how many to produce, and how many persons to employ'

It was an extraordinary exposure to the inner workings of the communist state-run system behind the Iron Curtain. Every business was told what to make, what price to sell it at, how many to produce, and how many persons to employ. That was it; there was no concept of a competitive market and financial return. It was very difficult to identify the best survival prospects. I think that project made me appreciate much more fundamentally the freedom and prosperity we enjoy in Ireland and the EU. 

How important are standards for engineers, and will they become increasingly important in future years? 

I hope members are not getting tired of me talking about the benefits of standards work! From the outside, that world might look to be a bit dull and dreary, but I have seen so many examples of individuals and companies that really benefit by getting an early understanding of emerging technologies and markets through working as an expert on a standards committee.

For me the standard itself is almost a byproduct – it is all about the process and the advance knowledge that comes from participation. 

We have such an advantage in Ireland with the same level of access to CEN (European Committee for Standardization); CENELEC (European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization); ISO (International Organization for Standardization); and IEC ( International Electrotechnical Commission) as the big economies of Europe. Better in fact, because as native English speakers it is so much easier to participate and contribute effectively. 

Anybody who has lived abroad knows we are lucky in Ireland to have so many top-quality golf courses available; so much so that, living here, it is shame not to at least give the game of golf a go. Well, I argue that we are equally fortunate in our easy access to the world of standards, and engineers in Ireland really should similarly take full advantage. 

What is a typical day for you? 

Pre-pandemic, it was an early alarm clock and a long commute from Roscommon town to Trim or Dublin city centre. That’s a lot of listening to the morning and evening radio talk shows!

Now, like so many others, I am working from home most of the time. It has been great to avoid the commuting time and impressive how well a big organisation such as the OPW has been able to adapt to remote working but now, a year later, the strains are showing.

It has been difficult to integrate the new staff we have taken on, and most of us find that we need to invest more and more time in video calls to get the same work done and retain our connections.

I don’t think we will ever go back to having all staff working five days a week in the office. The Programme for Government targets 20% remote working for the public service and I expect it will be higher for many sections of the civil service.

'It has been difficult to integrate the new staff we have taken on and most of us find that we need to invest more and more time in video calls to get the same work done and retain our connections'

Remote working opens all sorts of societal advantages, with reduced traffic, emissions, and a more balanced regional distribution. I’m engaged right now with the human resources experts and architects trying to anticipate what changes are necessary to the head office space when significant numbers of staff will be remote working. 

We will need very good video conference facilities to cater for mixed room/remote meetings and lots of collaboration space for informal working in small teams. The canteen and the tea station become very important as those random interactions with colleagues there will be ever more important when we have fewer days in the office. 

What is your favourite film? 

It’s been more streaming services than cinema in the past year for me as for everybody else. I really got into a series on Prime Video, The Man in the High Castle, and enjoyed it immensely. Heavy and intense but really excellent from beginning to end.

On a lighter note, we loved Emily in Paris on Netflix and I’d really recommend it for anybody who has lived in France. 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? 

‘You’re on mute!’ 

What do you do to relax? 

I’m a big fan of Connacht rugby and most other sports. When I can, I play bridge in the Engineers Club on a Monday night, and I have always loved to travel. Right now, though, it’s walks, walks, and more walks within 5km during the pandemic. 

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.