Budget, Infrastructure and The civil engineering profession
by Scott Younger
I was travelling recently at 12,000m on my way to the Big Apple, where I first landed coming up to a half century ago as a raw young graduate on the liner US United States on way to the West Coast for a Master’s, partly courtesy of the Fulbright program. As usual while flying, there is time for the mind to spin free and think of things beyond those that pressure daily existence. One of the last things that I read before leaving Jakarta concerned early comments on the 2012 budget which, not surprisingly, raised criticism in certain quarters despite the underlying message relating to poverty and unemployment.
No government budgets ever escape unscathed, the demands always exceeding capability of response, but the criticism on lack of attention to infrastructure does warrant comment. Is it because climbing out of the mire of inactivity and the apparently insurmountable ability to cut through bureaucratic processes to accelerate action is too difficult or a case of legislative self-indulgence, or both? It’s probably both and other matters besides.
But one of the most telling ways to overcome unemployment, develop practical skills and assist poverty alleviation is to spend on infrastructure – properly. I am reminded of the old adage “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach the man to fish and he will feed himself forever”. Providing people with the opportunity to work leads to self-esteem and to start thinking “what else can I do?” None of this should reduce the essential profit from a project, assuming the approach is correct with proper attention to care and skill development.
I was tidying up papers the other day, when I came across a presentation I made almost exactly 20 years ago to INKINDO, Indonesia’s consulting en gineering body. The theme of the presentation concerned the Development and Future of Consulting Engineering, something that was then exercising minds in my own professional body, the Insitution of Civil Engineers, now approaching in the bi-centenary of its formation in London. With the developing world beginning to establish, and rightly so, their own indigneous bodies, the role of old, well established international practices was going to have to change and be more attentive to issues broader than just the engineering of a problem. The early days of thinking about the integrated issues within the scope of sustainable development.
Consulting engineering really started in the mid-1850s in England, with the emphasis on professionalism based on a fiduciary relationship with the client, i. e. one of trust and confidence with no outside conflicting interest. That became the hallmark of British consulting engineering with professionalism underwriting all dealings. That underscored my early introduction to civil engineering; my mentors at that time would have been horrified at that time at bidding for services; it would have been deemed the breaking of trust.
However, with pressure from business and other global forces, consultants have had to bite the bullet and the bidding for services got underway about 30 years ago, and the approach to delivery of engineering services gradually, sometimes more quickly, had to change; firms had to adapt to market forces. In time the middle-sized consultant began to be squeezed so we have seen the evolvement of large international entities offering a multi-disciplinary portfolio, while at the other end there has been the flourishing of boutique specialist groups and, individual experts.
The past three decades has also seen the rise of indigenous practices in fast developing new markets/countries such as Indonesia. These have grown up in the new era of bidding, and they are thus often seen as just an extension of some other line of business. In general, the concept of a special fiduciary relationship with a client has gone with consulting engineering practices becoming workshops and insufficiently think tanks, not rationally building up a store of in-house knowledge and related skills. This is not helped by the lack of a proper post-university mentoring structure, which is still seen as a necessary core to a young engineer’s development in countries with a long established tradition in the profession.
I view this with some concern and fundamental to the future of the local profession and the development of sound, sizeable, well-skilled practices, currently in short supply for all the pending infrastructure and other sustainable development needs of the future. The matter needs a lot more attention than currently it seems to get.
At time of writing, the month of November sees several infrastructure related events. In mid-month the Indonesian Australian Chamber of Commerce with its Autralian-based counterpart will be holding this year’s bi-annual conference in Bali, the event being attended by leaders of both countries. It is fitting that water and food form the theme of the conference. These fundamental issues, along with energy, are the key life elements that must exercise the attention of global countries now that the population of the world has passed the 7 billion mark and is destined to approach 10 billion by mid-century.
I recently gave an invited special lecture to graduate students on the subject of sustainable development at the Institut Pertanian Bogor (IPB) and was gratified at the level of questions asked and the interest expressed in concerns over food and water in the future and Indonesia’s sustainability in theses areas. It was agreed that the resources are there, but how they are to be managed for maximum sustainable output is the question.
These same issues are expected to feature also in the World Delta Summit being hosted by the city of Jakarta on 21-24 November. Once again, the conference will be looking at the many infrastructure, food and logisitcal issues that will face the large communities that will make up the hundreds of cities of the world, which are expected to house some 70% of the world’s population by 2050. The meeting will be the first of a bi-annual event with many countries taking part. This highly inportant subject is now receiving increasing coverage in the world press.
Even before the World Delta Summit is over, there is a government supported two-day airing again on toll roads. It would be good, although unlikely, that some progress had been made on the question of land acquistion, something that was even raised by investors as far away as New York. There I was twice asked whether I would take a bet that the new law would be signed by the end of April 2012.
Plenty to get one’s teeth into but let’s hope that this is not just another NATO period.
“No government budgets ever escape unscathed, the demands always exceeding capability of response, but the criticism on lack of attention to infrastructure does warrant comment”.
Scott Younger is the president commissioner of Glendale Partners and Nusantara Infrastructure.
(source: Globe Asia, December 2011)