Monorail: the only way to travel in Brockway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrooke

Big ideas: engineers respond to the E&T challenge

E&T rounds up readers' proposals to put a big engineering project at the heart of Government policy.

E&T readers have responded to our ‘If you were Prime Minister’ challenge with ideas ranging from large-scale infrastructure developments to more abstract policy measures to capitalise on the contribution engineering can make to the nation’s fortunes.

The challenge was linked to the publication by the IET and other technology organisations of ‘Engineering the Future of the UK’, a five-point plan described as a manifesto for engineering.

This document calls on government to prioritise investment in skills, make the UK a leader in low-carbon technology, capitalise on the research base and harness the power of public spending, at the same time making greater use of expert advice in policymaking. We invited you to come up with one major initiative that would encompass all these objectives.

EurIng Dr David Rhodes was thinking big when he proposed building a major renewable energy facility of global significance, such as an HVDC link to bring solar-generated electricity from the hot deserts in the poverty-stricken areas of the world to the industrial regions of Europe.

“The transnational, apolitical nature of the engineering profession and its institutions, plus the universal need to harness its skills world-wide to adapt and mitigate the effects and causes of climate change, make this an ideal project,” he argues. “It would make use of many interdisciplinary engineering and management skills and provide tremendous learning for further projects – not least learning to collaborate internationally on practical climate-change solutions.”

Nick Beckett’s suggestion was closer to home. He believes government should back the regular application of a heating diagnostic system to all new and existing wet heating systems throughout the UK, reckoning that hardly any of the country’s 22 million radiator-based domestic heating systems have ever been correctly balanced.

“Needless to say I am biased because I am currently developing a system,” he admits. “However, I know there are countless householders uncomfortable and unhappy with the way their systems currently perform.”

The hour-and-a-half process would benefit both consumers and contractors as well as the economy, he believes. “Once the existing systems have been purged of their inherent inefficient performance, regular diagnostic checks can be maintained and Home Information Packs may thereafter contain some factual measured evidence of performance. Financial incentives could be introduced based on certificated system efficiency.”

On the theme of transport, Roy Meddings backs the creation of an overhead monorail system for future public transport following the routes of present road network, while Paul Ingle aims to cut down on journeys with funding for businesses and public bodies to purchase and install teleconferencing equipment.

“Clearly there are times when face-to-face meetings are required, such as the first time a supplier meets a customer, but this strategy would greatly reduce the carbon footprint of the UK,” he wrote.

Peter Summerhayes looked beyond the UK’s shores with an idea that would benefit many other countries. “My simple suggestion is to develop further the provision of drinking water from sea water. A low-cost, perhaps solar, solution would be very beneficial to all island nations big or small, developed or fledgling. It would aid the work on climate change, further developing a new area of expertise, opening up new markets and using all the innovation of our research and engineering resources.”

Christopher Blair took advantage of our challenge to outline the ‘Thinking Inside the Box’ concept he’s been working on for more than ten years.

“Why do we still move milk, newspapers, online shopping, post, recyclables, refuse, ourselves and our school-kids around our local neighbourhood with a plethora of highly diverse, inefficient, polluting, overlapping and expensive mechanisms?” Blair asks.

Giving an engineer free rein to design the entire transport infrastructure of a district would finally deliver on the long-standing promise that technology will let us reduce our carbon footprint and resource usage without reducing our standard of living, Blair claims. It’s based on every home having a secure, weatherproof delivery hatch and a network of electric vehicles that coordinate deliveries of food and goods via a central hub and act as minibuses for local journeys.

A step change like this requires no new science and carries little or no technical risk, Blair asserts. “However, it does require a sustained and strong driving force and a regulatory framework to enforce technical standards and quality of service standards. Unless all delivery services within a significant area are consolidated and the vast majority of properties participate and are built or adapted to support a single system, these benefits cannot be realised. Only through long-term pressure and support can government drive the vested interests in the dairies, the postal and delivery services, bus companies and supermarkets to work together for the greater good.”

Perhaps the solution is to look to the past, suggested Peter Belcher, who thinks a new government would do well to look back to 1979 and the recommendations of the cross-profession Finniston report that support of engineering should be a top government policy.

“Rejection of the report led to the emphasis on service industries – banks, building societies, estate agents etc – rather than industries which contribute to manufacturing and export,” he wrote.

One group of MPs has already stressed the need for closer scrutiny of the technical background to the decision-making process. In its last report before the election, the Commons Science and Technology Committee called for successful candidates to be given the right to maintain a proper oversight of the government’s use of science and engineering.

The committee points out that important and sometimes controversial legislation such as the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act have benefited from having a cross-party group that can collect and report on scientific evidence. It argues that a freestanding group not tied to a single Whitehall department is the only effective means of ensuring the broad range of relevant issues is properly covered.

The outgoing Science and Technology Committee pioneered new ways of conducting select committee business, taking advantage of video-links to collect evidence from outside the UK, using social networking sites and holding parallel inquiries with its counterpart committee in the US House of Representatives.

Committee chair Phil Willis said: “Our legacy report highlights some of the key areas over the last few decades where huge value has been added to the legislative process by having an ‘in-house’ committee of MPs who can consider scientific matters. It is crucial that there is an effective science committee in the new Parliament that ensures MPs properly scrutinise the government’s use of science.”

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