Cosmic Engineering

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Photo by Maxwell Hamilton

To be honest my former self would have thought that an ‘inspiring engineer’ was an oxymoron. It would seem that the universe has intervened on the behalf of the engineering profession to set me straight.

You could call it a feat of ‘cosmic engineering’. Whether sitting on a bus winding around rural Taiwan or random seating on a flight to London where the entertainment system went down, or through being connected by friends who simply say “I think you will enjoy meeting this person” I have been introduced to a species previously unknown to me.

The type of engineers I have had the pleasure of meeting are ‘disaster engineers’.  I am tempted to say “The ones that put the hardware back together again” but no.  The species I am referring to are a very special breed.      They get the ‘hardware’ and the ‘software’ and they demonstrate a passion and genuine desire for social outcomes that blows me away [and I am a humanitarian…..].

What is so surprising is not the differences (albeit the occasional but fair comment “Elizabeth, you really don’t know anything about physics do you?”) but what we share.

Today I was fortunate to meet the General Manager of SCIRT (The Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team) Duncan Gibb and his team. As an aside I must say it is rather amusing that a bunch of engineers call themselves SCIRT (pro-nounced SKIRT)!

SCIRT is an alliance designed to bring five highly competitive construction companies and engineering designers from many different companies together with two central government agencies and the Christchurch City Council.  This alliance is a response to a highly complex and colossal challenge –the rebuilding of the City’s horizontal infrastructure[1]. It is a system through which they all succeed or fail together.

It makes me think of an ‘infrastructure flash mob’ – a coordinated ‘dance’ that pops up all over the city to perform vital repairs/rebuilds for the people of Christchurch. The strong sense of ‘noble purpose’ generated by the Earthquakes is central to the choreography of this dance and there is an ongoing commitment to keeping that alive.  Duncan describes it as “ego’s out the door – this is all about the people of Christchurch and an opportunity to show what our industry can do!”

Alongside this sense of purpose are the mind-set/values and behaviour of the organisation that inspire people to work together. These are fostered in many ways throughout the organisation.

SCIRT mindsets and values

  • best for communities
  • open to new ways and perspectives
  • collectively we are stronger
  • generous with trust
  • Zero Harm
  • developing our people

SCIRT behaviours

  • listening actively
  • having honest conversations
  • working together
  • having the courage to speak up
  • leading by example and walking the talk
  • striving for excellence

I comment on the fabulous dress that one of leadership team is wearing [It is my ‘decade of the dress’ so I am always on the lookout for contenders].  She says she has chosen it for the opening of the SCIRT sponsored buskers festival which is an opportunity for Cantabrians to “quake with laughter”. She also leads a forty strong community engagement team. It strikes me that these engineers have their heads well above and below ground.

As Duncan, Rod, Sandra and I head off for lunch we pass a group of SCIRT employees. Duncan says, “nice shirt” to a chap wearing a rather funky number. “I try my best for SCIRT Duncan” he replies with a twinkle in his eye, although said in jest I get the sense he means it.

I woke up early this morning with yesterday’s conversations on my mind. I opened my hotel door to retrieve the newspaper. The front page news is the opening of the SCIRT Buskers Festival. The photo of Duncan juggling reminded me of a leadership story that the Red Cross head of the Haiti recovery operation told me about post-disaster leadership.

He said:

  • a leader needs to be able to juggle many balls
  • a competent leader needs to be able to juggle the balls and move forward at the same time
  • a good leader has the wisdom to know that post-disaster it is not possible to juggle all the balls at the same time and move forward so will drop some of them
  • a great leader remembers where she dropped the balls and when the time is right will go back and pick them up.
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‘Duncan Gibb a literal and metaphorical juggler’
Photo: The Press

The achievements of this alliance have not gone unnoticed and SCIRT has recently been awarded the Brunel Medal awarded by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE – United Kingdom) to recognise excellence in engineering. The institution noted:

“This project highlights the scale of the task and the number of people involved, showing outstanding teamwork and collaboration. This was a natural disaster of great magnitude and shows the dedication to a project of immense scale. It has placed civil engineering in the forefront of people’s minds.”

We need to learn from the SCIRT model. Imagine if we could design ‘industry based flash mobs’ that come together to address our world’s most complex problems –that deliver & dance together rather than stall & fight?

David Lallemant [also of the engineering ilk] has posed some very helpful questions on ‘learning lessons’ post-disaster on the collaborative blog resilient urbanism.

I encourage you to check it out as we need to consider David’s questions if we are to truly learn how to ‘do and be better’.


[1] The horizontal infrastructure rebuild involves the wastewater, fresh water and storm water networks, as well as retaining walls, road repairs and bridges

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