Update from the President: 24 March

Published: 24/03/2017

An update for members from Ian Firth.

I started writing this episode on the plane on the way back from very interesting meetings in the USA, and had every intention of sending it on my return, but somehow another week flew past and I found myself in The People's Republic of China on another Institution visit on the other side of the planet; we certainly are an international organisation! It is not without justification that we talk about being a Global Institution for a Global Profession! So this blog will attempt to cover both visits and touch on the exciting and significant developments I have been fortunate enough to witness over the last few weeks.

Firstly then, I will talk about the visit to the United States with Martin Powell, where we held important meetings over two days with representatives of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the Structural Engineering Institute (SEI). This was to build on the already close relationship between the Institution and our American counterparts, and to develop several initiatives which we have identified for supporting our members' interests worldwide. I am happy to say that the meetings went well and were very productive. We will be reporting more fully on the outcomes in due course, but for now I will merely say that we are looking at a number of opportunities such as organising joint international events, initiating a structural safety reporting system in the USA based on SCOSS and CROSS, and various shared benefits for both sets of members. We will return in September to continue with these discussions. Suffice to say that I am excited by the opportunities for collaboration between the Institution and ASCE/SEI on a number of levels, with some short, medium and long term goals identified which could generate far reaching benefits for our members and for structural engineering generally.

I want to acknowledge the vital and pivotal role of Glenn Bell, who occupies a very significant position in both organisations. If you don't yet know him, Glenn is a member of the Institution Board and Council, and is also on the Board of Governors of SEI. He is Senior Principal and Chairman of Simpson Gumpertz & Heger (SGH), a well known US firm of consulting engineers. It has been good to get to know Glenn, who is one of those inspirational leaders with an enviable catalogue of interesting structures to his credit. One of these, the Baha'i temple in Santiago, Chile, caught my eye in particular, because we designed three Baha'i temples in my office about 35-40 years ago, and they tend to be interesting structures. Glenn's CV reveals a man who is extremely busy and influential in many arenas, and we are privileged to have him as a Trustee and Board Member of our Institution.

One of the things I am finding in my role as President (and I am reminded that I am only a quarter of the way through my term!) is that I get to meet a lot of very clever, very senior and very influential people who are working hard to promote the profession of structural engineering. Ours is a vital role, working to ensure public safety and shaping the world around us where we live and work. It is gifted leaders like Glenn Bell, and many others like him, who inspire young people to become structural engineers and pursue this responsible career. In the various lectures I have been giving during my visits, I have continued to encourage listeners to "Go for Gold" in their work, to raise the bar of quality in our built environment, to be inspired by the work of influential engineers, and to inspire others in their turn.  I am glad to say that my message seems to be well received.

While we were there, we took a short break in our discussions to see the Dream Big film, taking advantage of being in the USA to see it because it is not yet released in the UK. This wonderful film was promoted by the ASCE and is intended to encourage young people to pursue a career in engineering. It is absolutely brilliant and extremely inspiring. I knew about it because my good friend Avery Bang, the CEO of charity Bridges to Prosperity, features in the film, and I specifically asked that we found time to go and see it. I am very glad we did. When the film does come to a cinema near you I strongly recommend that you go and see it. And when you do, take along some friends and a bunch of teenagers who have not yet chosen their degree course; I hope it will help them to decide to become an engineer.

And so to China, where I have been in Shanghai, Beijing and Chongqing in the past week, meeting at Tongji, Tsinghua and Chongqing universities with several well-known and highly respected professors, as well as many others. I have a briefcase full of business cards from those I met, and I won't attempt to name all of them, so if you are reading this and don't get a mention please forgive me; the omission is merely due to lack of space! 

We started at Tongji University where the Institution's Supplementary Examination was being held over a couple of days. I was with Martin Powell and Darren Byrne (Deputy Chief Executive) and we met with Professor Jie Min Ding (James Ding) who sits on Council on behalf of the China Regional Group and was our host in Shanghai. Miss Zoe Zhou, the Institution's hard working representative who works tirelessly on our behalf, accompanied us throughout our visit, which was just as well as we would have got very lost without her! 

We joined the examiners, who had who gathered from all over China and as far afield as Hong Kong, Malaysia and Australia for the Supplementary Exam. This exam is taken by candidates who have already passed China's own stringent examination to become a Class 1 Structural Engineer, and who now wish to become MIStructE. Our Supplementary Examination tests a candidate's ability in conceptual design as this is an important aspect of our MIStructE standard which is otherwise missing from the Chinese exam. The examiners do a great job, giving of their time and expertise, and we are extremely grateful for their commitment and support.

Following the examinations, I gave a lecture to students, staff and members which seemed to go down well and generated lots of questions from an enthusiastic audience of about 120. Here, as at all our meetings, we encouraged the students to sign up as free Student Members of the Institution so that they could benefit from all the materials available to them – for free!

We had a tour of part of the impressively huge university campus, including the wind tunnel labs, and had dinner with the examiners, twice; once hosted by Professor Ding and once hosted by us. We also learnt about an app called wechat – similar to whatsapp but with extra useful facilities. (I found that along with some other social media, whatsapp doesn't work in China.) The China Group has a wechat account with lots of members signed up and sharing information about what is going on. This is a great model for other groups to follow. It seems that my lecture went down well as the subsequent (and simultaneous!) chatter on wechat was apparently positive!

Then it was off to Beijing by high speed train (max 305kph) from the windows of which we could see some of the extraordinary amount of construction work going on. In amongst the wide open spaces of rural China we travelled through several cities and saw large numbers of tall residential blocks going up, usually in close-packed groups, including some seemingly a long way from anywhere! In Beijing we were met and hosted by Professor Yong Jiu Shi, our representative at Tsinghua University, where I gave a lecture to a relatively small group of students and staff. Darren gave a presentation about membership and again encouraged the students to sign up for free. This was my first visit to the city, and although there was no time to depart from our busy schedule for any sightseeing, it was good to at least drive through Tiananmen Square (in the rain) and see the huge scale of the place and sense something of its extraordinary and fascinating history.

We had an important and constructive meeting with the Practice Qualification Registration Centre (PQRC), who bestows the qualification of Class 1 Structural Engineer on those structural engineers who pass their exam. We met with the President, Jian Ming Tao and Vice President Yang Yu, together with Director Jiansheng Qi and others. We were accompanied by Professor Shi and of course Zoe Zhou. The discussions centred on building our already good relationship with the PQRC, developing a range of CPD courses of value to members of both organisations, and encouraging more of their 46,000 Class 1 engineers to consider becoming members of the Institution and take our Supplementary Exam.

The following day Martin left for Hong Kong while I travelled with Darren and Zoe to Chongqing in the west of the country. This is the third city of China with a population of about 30 million, and flying in through the low cloud I was able to see why it is called the city of bridges as there are many bridges of all sorts crossing the Yangtze and Jialing rivers which merge at this point. Here we were joined again by KF Chung (Institution Vice President) from Hong Kong who had been with us in Tongji and also by Professor Ding who came over from Shanghai for this special occasion. In addition to my lecture to students, I was presenting a certificate of Fellowship to Professor Xuhong Zhou, the President of Chongqing University and an Academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. Professor Zhou was elected FIStructE through the Eminent Persons Route, and it was a great privilege for me to present him with his certificate.

We met with many people at Chongqing University (yet another impressive university campus) including Professor Yang Bo who is the Institution's SLO. He must have done his job well, encouraging lots of students to attend, because it was standing room only when I gave my presentation to a large number of students, staff and members. Darren, Zoe and Professor Ding also made presentations and there were many enthusiastic questions from the students. We hope to see all of them joining up as free student members very soon! Then after lots of photographs and handshakes it was off to yet another excellent meal. I must say, I have been overwhelmed by the kind welcome and generous hospitality we have received everywhere.

Next day, we had a short visit to the structural laboratories, including their shaking table, and also to a development called "Raffles City", under construction at the confluence of the two rivers. Here there will be several new tall buildings with a big bridge joining some of them at the top - rather like at the Marina Bay development in Singapore. I was slightly puzzled by the inclined concrete columns in what seemed like an odd choice of structural form considering the high seismicity of the region, but no doubt that has all been dealt with properly in the structural design!

Unfortunately, the weather was foul so we didn't linger long by the river for photos, but we did see a new self-anchored suspension bridge under construction across the Yangtze, which at over 800m promises to have the longest span for this type of bridge in the world when completed. This relatively difficult to construct and expensive bridge type was chosen because there was no room for gravity or tunnel cable anchorages, and as it stands immediately alongside an existing suspension bridge a cable stayed solution would have looked entirely wrong. The choice of structural form was thus governed by context and aesthetics; a good choice!
Then it was back to Shanghai and thence back home to London. I am left with all sorts of impressions gained from the visit, but above all I have a new sense of the enormous amount of activity in construction, design and research going on in China. Our members there operate at the highest level, as they do everywhere, and there is no shortage of opportunity for them both within China and all over the world.

Please feel free to comment on anything in this article; I would love to hear from you.

Ian Firth, 24 March 2017

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