Last edited 18 May 2021

The role of civil engineering in designing out loneliness



[edit] Introduction

Bryn Noble, a civil engineer at WSP and one of past ICE President Andrew Wyllie’s Future Leaders, is calling on all civil engineers to help tackle a key part of our mental and social health.

[edit] Making connections

I believe civil engineers have a fundamental role to play in tackling loneliness. When I say this to my friends, family, colleagues and fellow engineers, I often, and understandably, receive a slight turn of the head, followed by a pause and hear the repetition of "civil engineering and loneliness?"

I expect some of my readers may have the same reaction. But hold on, hear me out.

What's the role of a civil engineer? Fundamentally, we improve the quality of life for society and we achieve this through a variety of mediums.

Sir Winston Churchill once said, "We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us."

What he meant by this is that our personalities, our behavioural traits, our defining characteristics are absolutely a product of the built environment we live in.

As civil engineers, many of our actions, the decisions we make, the solutions we implement, influence the health of society.

But first, a step back to clarify a few things.

[edit] Health, society and civil engineering

The definition of health, according to the World Health Organisation, is the "complete state of physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity".

What does this mean? For each of us to be considered wholly healthy, we must be physically healthy, be of a healthy mental state and have a positive social wellbeing. If one of these key components can be regarded as unhealthy, then we as an individual cannot be considered wholly healthy.

What defines a society? Well, society is made up of individuals who live together in a community. The connections we share with each other: the interaction with a stranger on your commute to work; a conversation with your colleague; communications with friends, family, in fact anyone; these infinite, dynamic connections are ultimately what forms our society. Our ability to connect and communicate with one another is one of the most important skills we have - it enables us to work together.

Now that we've established that society is a collection of individuals, we can view the health of society as a collection of individuals' health. If we have portions of individuals in society who are mentally unhealthy, or socially unhealthy, then we have pockets of that society which are unhealthy.

As I mentioned previously, our purpose is to improve the quality of life for society - by improving the health of society we will certainly improve the quality of life for the individuals within it.

Is this an achievable task? Is there an example where a civil engineer has already achieved this?

[edit] Learning from our superheroes

Absolutely. Let's look to our past for a particularly strong case study, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, or as we all know him by now: Captain Sanitation.

Captain Sanitation designed and built London’s sewer network, a fantastic achievement.

One of the unintended consequences of this was the elimination of cholera, as well as a vast reduction in the number of epidemics in typhus and typhoid. This engineered, practical solution, vastly improved the physical health of society in London, in fact I would argue their mental health as well.

Citizens were no longer dying from drinking water. The anxiety, stress and grief of potentially losing a loved one for simply drinking something that's essential for our survival was eliminated. A fantastic example of how a civil engineer can vastly improve the health of society.

[edit] The effect of loneliness on our society

The question is, can we do this for mental and social health? Our understanding of mental and social health has developed radically. It’s been established that poor social wellbeing can cause numerous negative consequences on both our physical and mental health, to list but a few:

  • The physiological damage on the body caused by the stress of feeling lonely is as toxic as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
  • Loneliness is worse for you than obesity.
  • Lonely people are more likely to suffer from dementia, heart disease and depression.

(Campaign to End Loneliness statistics)

The need to improve social health is clearly there. Is there an opportunity for civil engineers to help save the day?

[edit] Government’s call for action

In October 2018, the UK Government published its policy on tackling loneliness, delivered by the world’s first UK Minister for Loneliness Tracey Crouch MP. The paper called on all to tackle loneliness where they're able to do so.

Chapter 3 of this policy, ‘Community infrastructure that empowers social connections’, reiterates that practical measures to reduce social isolation can also help to tackle loneliness. That is, the way we design our community spaces, masterplans, buildings and outdoor spaces, transport, infrastructure and future mobility has a significant influence on social wellbeing.

It's here where the ICE must lead industry. We have leaders and experts with the skills and knowledge in these fields to support Government. It's imperative that we develop a best practice guide which defines our position and our intentions.

I work for WSP engineering consultants, and we're already working with clients through our Future Ready programme to design out loneliness early on in the project conception stage.

[edit] Why do we need a best practice guide on loneliness?

Loneliness is a generational issue which will take generations to combat. There'll be no quick fix to this societal issue, but having a guide which we can continuously refer to, revise and redistribute, will enable future generations of engineers to continue the fight against loneliness.

In April 2019 I asked the ICE Council to support me in the delivery of a guide on how civil engineers can tackle loneliness. I'm now extremely pleased to say that ICE Council backed my proposals for ICE to start working on guidance in this area.

We will aim to assess and define how we can design out loneliness, looking at case studies which have exacerbated social isolation. We'll also consult with academia and industry to develop the best practice guide. There's a perfect opportunity for the ICE to place itself as a world leader on the subject, supporting Government by communicating and coordinating its strategy with industry.

Wouldn’t it be fitting for the world’s first Institution of Civil Engineers, endorsed by the world’s first Minister for Loneliness, to produce the world’s first civil engineering best practice guide on tackling loneliness?

[edit] Get involved

The time for us to defend society against loneliness has arrived. If we don't truly and holistically consider social wellbeing in our designs, then we are complicit in building an unhealthy social landscape.

Hopefully, I've convinced anyone reading this that civil engineers have a role to play in tackling loneliness. Hopefully, I will be hearing from you soon.

I would ask anyone reading this to take a moment and assess how they can improve the health of society within their own community.

If you'd like any further information on designing out loneliness and social wellbeing within the ICE, or wish to support me in the delivery of this guidance, then please don’t hesitate to contact me at [email protected]. It would be great to hear from you.

The late Jo Cox used to say, "Loneliness doesn’t discriminate", and I believe these words speak for themselves.

The ICE loneliness guidance will need to be developed by a diverse and inclusive team, by anyone who wishes to tackle this societal issue.

All of us have experienced loneliness to some extent. Working together and discussing our own experiences will benefit and strengthen the development of a diverse and inclusive guidance which reflects all members of our great society.

This article originally appeared on the Community Blog portion of the ICE website under the headline, 'Civil engineering's role in designing out loneliness'. It was written by Bryn Noble, President's Future Leader 2018/19 and published on 11 May 2021.

--Institution of Civil Engineers

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