Civil engineering is one of the oldest professions in the world. Remnants of the Great Wall of China or the pyramids of Egypt remind us of the role of civil engineers. This role has been well defined—design, build, and maintain infrastructure. However, the effects of climate change, increasing population, and emerging technologies cause civil engineers to face new challenges in a changing world and to respond to these challenges during the planning, designing, and implementation of projects. With that, ASCE has completed a comprehensive overview identifying several macrotrends that are important to the infrastructure industry, six of which are most relevant to the profession. Prospective civil engineers will become interdependent and lead multidisciplinary teams with a wide range of expertise for a more integrated approach to infrastructure needs.
Climate change is a broad global phenomenon caused by burning fossil fuels that add heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere. The transportation and electricity production industries contribute 58% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. It is estimated that the global temperature will rise from 2.5 to 10°F over the next 100 years. These results will vary across regions.
Alternative energy will have a large effect on the built environment. Energy is typically generated in a central location and distributed over long distances using high-emission fossil fuels. In the future, large energy grids could be replaced with small-scale local energy generation such as solar and wind. This can result in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, increased energy at lower costs, and decreased reliance on current energy grids.
Traditionally, the construction industry is risk adverse, meaning that adopting emerging trends and innovative practices is a slower process. However, embracing innovation can certainly become an enabler to the industry by improving processes, efficiency, and delivering techniques. For example, construction of large infrastructure projects can be much faster using increased automation, prefabrication, and large-scale 3D printing.
The technology of autonomous vehicles is rapidly advancing and has the potential to reshape transportation. The future of autonomous vehicles will depend on government regulations, determining if the vehicle is truly driverless, and whether these vehicles will be publicly or privately owned. This trend could result in a decrease in fatalities and an increase in rider and pedestrian safety. Alternatively, congestion could increase with a demand for new infrastructure facilities.
Cities are now building sensor networks for the collection of data to monitor and make decisions. This will have a tremendous effect on building management, transportation, energy and utilities, public safety, municipal services, and citizen engagement. Privacy and cybersecurity are concerns that will shape the future of this trend.
The previously discussed trends are all influenced by policymakers, regulations, and available/future funding needs. Without policy and funding, the outcome of these trends could be negative or nonexistent, so having clear policy goals, creative funding, and financing is an integral part of incorporating them. This requires coherent regulations for technology, private sector funding cooperation, and promoting equity of access to increase the quality of life for all.