About Me

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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Mass demolition is not magic bullet to solve housing disaster

As we await the full details of the cause of the Grenfell disaster we must not jump to blame 1970s tower blocks.

Right now, it looks like 2016 cladding is to blame, not 1970s design and construction. We need stronger refurbishment standards and more sustainable funding models for regeneration schemes, not mass demolition.

In 2015 the London Assembly report 'Knock it down or do it up' calculated a net loss of 8,000 socially rented homes in London since 2005. This is in small part due to right-to-buy, but largely because of regeneration programmes that demolish social homes and replace them with flats for private sale. Many of those new high rise flats for private sale are left empty, as cash deposit boxes for international investors. 

Unless we have a complete, radical overhaul of housing policy involving building new social homes at a level not seen since the mass construction programmes of the 1960s and 70s that are now being blamed for this disaster, demolishing tower blocks will exacerbate an already desparate shortage of homes for social rent. That will mean our cleaners, shop assistants, care assistants, teaching assistants, drivers, security guards and so many other people who keep this city going will be forced to leave or left in even more dangerous, overcrowded private rental accommodation.

Please, don't jump to blame 70s architecture and engineering. Mass demolition without complete reform of housing policy will cause more problems than it solves.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Grenfell: questions for engineering ethics

The awful inferno that killed an as yet unknown number of people in Grenfell Tower on Wednesday needs no introduction.

Building things, particularly technically difficult things like high rise buildings, is what the engineering profession prides itself on. The safety of the public is the highest priority of every engineer. No question.

The refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was, amongst other things, an engineering project. The engineering profession is central to setting building standards and providing technical advice to policy makers. Something has gone horribly wrong.

We hear from the contractor that they met all relevant standards. We await the full details to emerge during the investigations and inquiry, but on first hearing this response implies that an engineer's only obligation is to uphold the law. It is not. Our ethical duty is to keep the public safe. We are professionally obliged to put safety first, especially when clients or bosses are urging a cheaper option.

It is also our professional duty to be knowledgable about the state-of-the-art in our field. Contractors and consultants working on tower block cladding should have known about safety concerns and previous fires associated with these materials and systems, in London and in other parts of the world. That knowledge should have informed a thorough risk assessment and fire modelling, no matter what the minimum standards require. The modelling should have informed design and materials choices. Failure to insist on such work, particularly to keep costs down, would be a further breach of ethics and professionalism.

This is not just a failure of individuals and firms. As a profession we need to ask more searching questions.

If individual engineers have been raising concerns about these materials, what did their professional bodies and representatives do to make them clear to government?

How have we allowed building standards to slip so badly? Have we been complicit in allowing safety to become politicised? What have we done to stand up to vociferous 'health and safety gone mad' degregulators? Have we been strong enough in countering an ideology that believes that regulations must not hinder profitability?

Why have we been silent about the crisis in social housing and the safety implications of cost cutting, value engineering, poor maintenance, and unfeasibly low refurbishment budgets? Is it because we rely on contracts from social housing providers? Have we been too willing to bend to the pressures of these clients? Have we done enough to help our social housing clients resist and change government policy that has shown willful neglect for decades?

Some of this may sound political. Some will argue that housing policy is a matter for democratic politics, not engineering ethics. It may be. But when housing policy and deregulation leads to neglect and incompetence to the point where the public is no longer safe, it is time for engineers to step up. For the residents of Grenfell Tower and their families, too many of us were too slow in getting to our feet.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

University reforms in a complicated world

Apart from the food and festivities, the Christmas break is a time to catch up with friends and family, debrief the year that was, and think about things to come. The social media meme that summed things up best for me about the past year was a version of the old proverb 'if you think you know what's going on you probably don't know how bad things really are'. 2016 was a year when pundits and experts were made to look silly. It was also a year when war and terror destroyed lives. If I learned one thing this year, it's that the world is very complicated. I am one of the most highly educated people I know, and am really struggling to figure out what's going on.

In my annual holiday catch ups with friends who work in universities we swap our various analyses of events from different personal and theoretical positions. Then we talk about work. Invariably we kick off the annual championship competition for the 'most Kafkaesque experience of university administration' of 2016. This is cathartic and amusing, but given the state of the world, the state of our universities is increasingly becoming a source of shame and despair.

The world needs people who can think clearly. Now more than ever. The role of universities is to do some of that thinking on behalf of society, and to educate people to be able to do it for themselves.

Yet, when I talk to colleagues from universities all over the world, each year we seem to be moving further away from this purpose. University leaders are caught up responding to constant changes in government policy driven mostly by ideology, untested by an electorate who don't know that 'higher education policy' is anything other than tuition fees. University administrators are absorbed implementing reform to address a murky mixture of myths and realities about inefficient services and out-of-touch academics. Academics muddle through. Year after year, policy reforms come and go, consultants march in and out, surveys and focus groups and system reviews roll on, all in the name of improving the capacity of universities to respond to a changing world.

The tragedy is that the more intense and ambitious these processes of change and reform, the less capable universities seem to be in actually delivering on our core purpose. Processes that are sold as improving efficiency and reducing barriers to excellent teaching and research seem to create new and moving obstacles. My friends may be a cynical bunch, but never have I heard anyone who works in a university say 'we went through a really difficult and far reaching administrative restructure, but thankfully now it has released me to truly give my best to my students and to produce ground breaking research'.  Continuous improvement never rests.

The world needs clear, critical and creative thinking. It's time for universities to step up. We certainly need to change the way we work to be able to better address a changing world, but we also need to draw a line against endless distractions of reform and get on with the job. Knowing how and where to draw this line requires wisdom and good judgement. Where would you go to find people like that in a chaotic world? Let's hope we don't have to look too far.