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Engineers must become more holistic if they are to increase their influence

Transport for London (TfL) had a technology innovation day last week. I can’t say what was discussed as media were excluded (it’s a common occurrence in our industry; we do so like to share innovation), but one thing that did emerge publicly was a transport health action plan. Claimed to be the world’s first, it sets out how TfL is working to improve the health of people in the Capital.

Ten actions are promised over the next three years and chief among them are commitments to “explicitly” build health into the development and assessment of policies and projects and to quantify and “where possible” monetise the health impacts of TfL’s projects and policies.

Now, whether such a measure can be counted as a benefit in a Treasury-approved benefit to cost ratio is unclear, but it does throw open some interesting debate.

Not least it asks the obvious question - what do we engineers know about the health benefits of our schemes? At a project level, how much better is walking up an escalator for us than
using a lift? And then at a policy level, how much better for us is cycling than, say, walking to and from a train station or bus stop?

We know that enabling people to be more physically active is a public health priority not just for London but the UK as a who le, as it can help to tackle some of our biggest health challenges including Type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and some cancers.

But how do we quantify the health benefits of our work, let alone monetise it?

Clearly, we need to know. And to do that we need to extend our knowledge base once again. Another of TfL’s actions is to work with public health intelligence specialists and academics to evaluate the health impacts of its programmes. And so must you. And so must we at NCE.

It’s nothing to be scared of. Most firms serious about tackling tomorrow’s challenges are already broadening their skills. Take Costain: its 62-strong graduate intake this year is drawn from no fewer than 13 different disciplines to enable it to provide services which meet the increasingly broad needs of its clients. Public health probably needs to be part of this list soon, if it isn’t already.

Or take Arup. Its engineers are already working on a pilot project to turn New Zealand’s quake-hit Christchurch into the world’s smartest city, with sensors in the infrastructure of its central business district to be used to increase their understanding of how air quality affects respiratory illnesses (NCE 5 September 2013).

So tackling the health implications of infrastructure development does seem like an opportunity to be embraced. Solving transport problems in isolation is never going to get us a place at the top table.

Solve transport problems in conjunction with, say, health or education and then we really are in business.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor

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