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Department of Engineering

Cambridge lecturer interviewed for Discovery Channel documentary series

Cambridge lecturer interviewed for Discovery Channel documentary series

Dr Kristen MacAskill, Lecturer in Engineering, Environment and Sustainable Development, has been interviewed by the Discovery Channel for two episodes of the 'Disasters Engineered' documentary series currently airing in the UK. 

Innovation is fundamental to the engineering profession. But it must be pursued in a way that is cost effective (at least when spending public funds), responds to challenging deadlines, does not compromise safety and engenders the public’s trust.

Dr Kristen MacAskill

The series explores a range of engineering disasters, presents the consequences of the events, and details how these disasters might have been avoided. 

Dr MacAskill shares her thoughts on two of the disasters explored in the 10-part series.

In an interview filmed for the series, I explore the mining disasters in Aberfan, Wales (1966) and Brumadinho, Brazil (2019), considering the governance and systemic issues that set the context for these events (episode 4).

These cases highlight how the system of economic development influences the risks we are willing to, or have to, accept because of limited choice. The Aberfan and Brumadinho communities were both highly reliant on the mining activity that created exposure to risk that ultimately led to the disaster that caused loss of life. 

There are usually a series of factors at play that lead to a disaster event – often a combination of human factors, technical competency and attitudes towards risk. A common theme is that those who have the power to decide on (and perhaps benefit from) levels of acceptable risk are not those who will be impacted by the consequences, should things go wrong. 

This has wider implications for engineering. We are living in a world that is becoming increasingly obsessed with digitalisation and data. Advances in our ability to gather and analyse data are changing the basis on which critical decisions are made. This is shaping our individual and collective experiences – we can all cite examples, such as the proliferation of phone apps to manage and monitor various aspects of our daily lives. 

These advancements in capabilities provide the basis for innovation. Innovation is fundamental to the engineering profession. But it must be pursued in a way that is cost effective (at least when spending public funds), responds to challenging deadlines, does not compromise safety and engenders the public’s trust. These demands require us to hold values that do not succumb to pursuit of profit at the expense of a sense of responsibility for the wider impacts of our decisions.

Technical advances may help us to manage and plan infrastructure capacity and performance, to increase safety and to reduce error in design. However, we have to take care that this reliance on technology does not erode the ability (and responsibility) of the professional engineer to manage complexity and risk, to recognise when governance structures are inadequate and to proactively address those inadequacies. 

My interview also explored the impacts of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (episode 7, showing on Wednesday 26 February at 10pm). The levees that were constructed to protect the communities from flooding ultimately created a significant vulnerability. The protection provided by levees often leads to people building in areas that were previously subject to flooding. However, it means that failure of the levee system can lead to catastrophic flooding of those areas, as demonstrated in New Orleans. Evidence also suggests that the design of these levees in New Orleans were inadequate.

Digitisation and data may enable new ways of seeing and understanding, but decisions ultimately come down to interpretation of data and assignment of responsibility. With population growth, urbanisation and climate change among the grand challenges that our world now faces, it is not sufficient to suggest that digitalisation and industrialisation 4.0 is the new big agenda for the engineering profession. Engineers must be advising at the forefront of development, supporting the wider communication of risk to the public and helping to create governance systems that support a safer society.

Dr Kristen MacAskill during filming. Credit: Laing O'Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering and Technology, University of Cambridge.

About Dr Kristen MacAskill

Dr Kristen MacAskill was recently appointed as a Lecturer in Engineering, Environment and Sustainable Development at the Department of Engineering. She is transitioning from her role as Course Director for the Construction Engineering Master's programme, a part-time leadership programme also hosted by the Department.

This article has been edited from the Laing O'Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering and Technology.

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