While we write a lot about a sustainable built environment, we often overlook the contribution of engineers. We recently talked at length with Greg Bentley, CEO of Bentley Systems, about the upcoming Future City design competition for aspiring middle-school engineers. Bentley elaborates on the competition’s theme, “Alternative Energy: Fuel Your Future,” and he also forcasts the next evolution of an engineer’s role while turning some long held assumptions on their head. Bentley Systems has been a key developer of CAD and BIM software, and while you may never heard of them, their software is used to design the largest architectural and infrastructure projects around the globe. Read on to see what the future of engineering may look like and how we can inspire the next generation to make a real impact.

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Inhabitat: How long has Bentley Systems been a part of Future City?

Greg Bentley: We may be on our eleventh or twelfth year as the prime sponsor of the competition. The competition is part of National Engineer’s Week and Future City has been the prime investment of the National Engineer’s Week program for maybe 17 or 18 years.  Carol Rieg, who’s sitting with us here, was the founding Executive Director of the Future City competition. Carol, was Future City always part of the National Engineering’s Awareness Week?

Carol Rieg: Yes. Future City is a program of the National Engineer’s Week Foundation which is a consortium of engineering societies and engineering businesses and government organizations.

Inhabitat: Is the idea of the competition to bring awareness of the role of engineers in society?

Greg Bentley: Yes, and in particular, to this age group, the 12 and 13-year olds. The way I put it is if you don’t entice them to take the advanced math course at that age level they won’t – it won’t be possible curriculum wise for them to wind up an engineer, because they’ll never have the chance again to get the prerequisites to be interested to apply and then to be accepted at an engineering program at a university.

Inhabitat: How does Future City make that link for students between math and their own personal objectives and education?

Greg Bentley: A personal objective to speak about, and it’s one that Inhabitat is contributing to, is a sustainable environment. I put it this way: Of course, in our company we do software at Bentley Systems, we say for sustaining infrastructure and infrastructure sustains our economy. That’s clear, but for our environment, we have to sustain our environment at the same time as our economy. Engineers can do that and take that on. In fact, it’s everyone else who talks about it. It’s actually engineers who accomplish it, and we only can accomplish it if we sustain the engineering professions.

It’s my observation that our next generation does care about improving the world, and so in addition to awareness of what’s math relevant toward, perhaps Future City makes the connection between the environment and the ways in which we improve our environment. That’s our definition of infrastructure at Bentley Systems. It’s everything people do to improve the world.

If you’re in a Future City program or exposed to a Future City program, then you don’t take infrastructure for granted. It’s something that’s exogenous and is presented to you, but when you turn the tap on or whatever, you start to think about how is that done, and who’s done it and gosh it’s interesting that it works, and how could it work better. Those are some of this ripple effect, I suppose, of awareness that what goes on around us is something that people contribute to and can and should improve.

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Inhabitat: Each year there’s a different theme for Future Cities?

Greg Bentley: The theme for this coming year, very interestingly, is Alternative Energy: Fuel Your Future. And who has selected that, Carol?

Carol Rieg: The American Society of Mechanical Engineers is the lead engineering society this year. They have more of a global aspect, so alternative energy sources globally are critically important. The essay question is just a way to get the students thinking about their city and how it works and that, combined with the use of the SimCity software, which you know, is a well-known game that comes out of Electronic Art, gets the students problem solving about how their Future City will, first of all, be created, what they want to see in it; but then how they’ll do with the infrastructure issues that are presented in the SimCity game.

Greg Bentley: If SimCity teaches you anything it’s that things are connected and that one cause here is another consequence there, ripple through and so forth.

Inhabitat: SimCity is software modeling disguised as a toy for cities, but that’s very much now how we’re designing cities and infrastructure.

Greg Bentley: Nobody knew what infrastructure was until a few years ago and it isn’t even so much to do with sustainability. People now think of infrastructure in regard to stimulus, unfortunately. And we like to say, here at Bentley Systems, that infrastructure is not for stimulus, it’s for sustaining. It is underlying everything we do for the long term and that the reason to care about infrastructure now is that the returns on investment and infrastructure are better than ever — better than relatively any other investments, which have turned out to be somewhat illusory. Investments in residential real estate, and investments in whatever, private equity, you name it, have turned out to be a flash in the pan.

Just to use one example, over the past year, we’ve had such significant natural disasters. I saw a price tag on that. I think it was $260,000,000,000.00 was the cost of natural disasters in the past year. And you say, “Well, all right, but nobody can do anything about that, can they?” And the answer is that our engineers can do something about that by hardening and making our infrastructure and our economy more resilient. You can say infrastructure is a sustainable investment and that investment in alternative energy is an aspect on which there will be a higher and higher return, as who will doubt that traditional energy will cost much in the future.

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Inhabitat: A large part of sustainable design and construction is the idea of future proofing, meaning that you design something, even though you may not know what the design constraints or the situations for that design are going to be. Do you have a sense that the idea of future proofing with infrastructure is something that has a lot of viability in the conversation, especially when we talk to children about new variables, unknown variables that our cities will be facing in the future?

Greg Bentley: I think it is a very interesting concept, and I might start by saying, there’s an analogy with software and information technology itself. It’s a great time to be doing software, because hardware is advancing so fast. We don’t have to invent stuff, just take advantage of it. So I like to say we talk about information modeling is what we do at Bentley Systems, but information mobility, how information gets from one place to another and what it does. So people tend to think information mobility describes mobile devices and that’s interesting, but it’s wireless and it’s sensors and so forth.

The future proofing aspect on the software side is for information and then object– to be able to describe it themselves. In other words, if you don’t need to know how things are going to connect later when you design them, if they can describe themselves to the world at large and you can query and find things that are related, that’s the software aspect of future proofing.

And where it comes together in cities as they get smarter is where those of us in the middle of this describe it as a semantic network– where things can describe themselves to one another. And so for kids, I think, to imagine the future before any of us would have thought will be a future in which objects around them are computable, have identities that can express themselves, including their engineering properties and so forth. I might be talking about valves and controls or I might be talking about window blinds in a house, for instance.

So there is a respect in which this future proofing notion starts with technologies, including information technologies. Who would have thought, for instance, that a computer would fit in your hand or that you wouldn’t even recognize it as a computer?

We might worry that computers for our kids might lead them to be antisocial or to be preyed upon, but actually being creative with computers and being successful in engineering are correlated. But when we say creative with computers and I like to say there was a time when engineers had the hot technology products, fast work stations, and big, 3-D screens and so forth, but somewhere along the way it happened that our kids have the newer and better technology and the faster graphics in their games, but you don’t recognize that as a computer. More and more kids are actually not going to sit in front of a computer. They’re going to work with their thumbs or their device, and that’s happened in just a few years. Extrapolate a few years forward, speaking of future proofing, and where will computers be and where will we find computing? I think it’s just a very interesting notion, future proofing. Even for those of us that are in the middle of it; we ought to step back from the trees and see that forest.

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Inhabitat: You talked a little bit about how engineers are a very different species within the engineering profession. Obviously, that means that communication is going to be key about developing sophisticated modeling and getting the right people’s input at the right time. If I could swing that back to Future City, could you talk a little bit about how these younger folks are learning how to communicate problems and how to find resolution through communication?

Greg Bentley: When they work on a team, they work the way engineers work because all of these disciplines are required. Every infrastructure project is a campus, and structural, civil, mechanical, site, and so forth all have to work together; the plant aspects, the building aspects of it and so forth.

A Future City team consists of students and the teacher, and often, the teacher involves the whole classroom in the curriculum, especially in the parochial schools and home schools. But there’s always an engineering mentor involved to bring the real world in. The real world is its project work, if we want to improve our environment and the sustainability it is done one project at a time and the engineers are the optimistic people who know what can be accomplished rather than only talking about it. There’s no project until someone persuades something and sells someone. To get their ideas implemented, they learn in their teams. You’ve got to be persuasive, and that’s about communicating.

The single aspect that had surprised me most [is the communication]. I’ve been involved in judging some high school level competitions, and these are 12 and 13-year olds participating in Future City. If you experience both, you see a better job of communication and persuasion on the part of these middle school kids. I think that’s the case because they’re not self conscious. At age 12 and 13 they want to do their best and convince you they’re doing their best and get you to buy into their idea.

By the time you’re in high school you’re not so sure you want to stand out. You shrink into yourself, you’re more self conscious, and you do what other people think you’re supposed to do or what you think other people will think you’re supposed to be doing. An engineer may not be like that. An engineer believes in their idea, but needs to persuade you of it and that has a lot of resemblance with the real world.

One of the things that every Future City team member or those in the classroom of a team member learn is that, first of all, it’s interesting subject matter. You can’t help but learn some of it, but even if you’re not going to go on to be an engineer, you learn about persuasion and teamwork and communications and the use of tools. The software SimCity is a tool, the physical model is a tool. You can even think of the essay and the questioning by the judges as tools and those are going to be useful ways of thinking no matter what your work is and no matter what your projects are.

Inhabitat: We have talked about sustainable design as the ultimate in problem solving, so it’s a rather natural fit for young, inquisitive minds given the problem. How do you see that level of learning and problem solving evolving in the current AEC field and how can that be not only overcoming self consciousness, but also about overcoming “this is just how I have done things for so long.” How do we break those habits?

Greg Bentley: I know from time we spend at Bentley Systems with the engineering organizations of the world, that they do worry about their workforce getting a year older every year practically. The answer is to bring in young energy. They really do need and want those who join the professions now to have a commitment to continue to learn and keep learning. We’re not creating information for its own sake, but to connect things and make them work better, simulate, behave and be more sustainable and have better economics.

You’re never going to be done learning that, so the young folks coming in are expected and invited to bring that experience of having gone through, for instance, the many generations of SimCity and what it can do, or how our software has changed by the time they reach the professions. That can only be expected to be what they’re learning life, their professional life is going forward. There’s something sustainable about learning that we need to infuse more into the professions that will be another benefit of interesting and enticing youngsters. We’re never going to reach the point of diminishing returns of improving our infrastructure, the architecture, engineering, and construction of it. It’s relatively, over a long period of time, recession proof.

Inhabitat: When these kids enter an engineering profession, what’s the AEC software going to look like, say in ten years when they’re ready to work for a company and do real problem solving?

Greg Bentley: It won’t all be sitting on a computer that’s sitting on their desk. You know, there will be the mobility of information and mobility of software. The form factor will be unpredictable I think, but we can expect that objects will get programmed. For instance, if you’re designing a water treatment plant, you might describe the capacities and have the suppliers respond online with conceptual solutions. So you’re not buying a filter; you’re buying filtration and that will be in such a way that you will manipulate it into your overall plant design to make sure it fits.

That will seem like a long step to take from those who began in engineering doing drawing, then had computers emulate a drawing board. But for kids, for whom a computer has perhaps been in their palm since their early days, to have computing everywhere and making the actual city intelligent, it’s a less of a step, and I think they’ll be more at home with it.

I think there’s a real return to being a generalist. Software can be specialized. The ability to use software in creative ways is a real component of success in these professions of the future. There could be concern that people will get more and more specialized. I think applications of technology will get more and more specialized and the generalist puts them together, more so in the future than in the present.

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Inhabitat: In that sense, would you say that kids now have to pay attention to a more generalized understanding of how the physical world works to be successful?

Greg Bentley: I think paying more attention to the physical world and how it works is a byproduct of awareness that the city or the environment one finds oneself in has been chosen and engineered by someone or by generations of someones. How might we change and improve the ways in which we live and especially to coalesce our interests to improve our economy and environment at the same time?

Inhabitat: What was your favorite Future City project?

It was the year before Hurricane Katrina, and the winning team, for the first time, was three girls. That’s not unusual now, but five or six years ago it was less frequent. They were from Louisiana, so they had a bit of flair and they did a little dance step at the beginning and end of their project. That year the theme was Aggregates, basically cement and so forth was the theme.

In their application – they said, “We envision our Future City to be off the coast of New Orleans,” and they explained the risks there were to the coastal environment. They located their city in a dome offshore, and they used aggregates in a very interesting way to anchor it.

Of course, so then would come Hurricane Katrina. This team was from a parochial school in Baton Rouge.  [Bentley Systems] put up a billboard featuring this team and their project so that the the city engineers, as they approached, would actually see and appreciate this imaginative thought about what the risks are of being on shore versus off shore. The girls came and presented their Future City vision to that convention of engineers.

I think that’s a ripple effect that, hopefully, will have enticed some of them because they were great at persuading and communicating to at least appreciate and probably to have some involvement with improving our physical environment.

Inhabitat: Is that a newer role for engineers to be able to persuade and to communicate effectively? Since the hierarchy is going to change so dramatically when we talk about integrated design does that put engineers more on the spot in the decision making process than they had before typically?

Greg Bentley: No. I think the engineers can be the advocates who express what’s possible and we need that, because otherwise we’re, as a society, so full of hearing what’s impossible and constrained and so forth.  There’s never been constraints that bound us, and I don’t think there are any today than ever before, but it’s the engineers we need to listen to and the scope of engineering.

Engineers are moving toward a time when they won’t be compensated for their hours, but compensated for the quality of their work and the replication of their work through intellectual property in more projects in the world.

Inhabitat: That makes them very much a stakeholder of the quality of the project.

Greg Bentley: Indeed. But the new role is, “Hey, listen to the engineer, because he’s going to tell you what’s possible and how it’s possible.” And if you listen to the politicians, you know, even the economists, you’re going to hear that it’s not possible.

I believe that in infrastructure where we’re all out of government funding, but private funding of infrastructure has nowhere near met the level of diminishing returns. We’re going to discover that there’s no alternative to government involvement. Then when most of the investment and infrastructure is private investment, engineers are going to make out even better.

You’ve got me talking about the future of engineering, but I see it in kids today, who have to be thinking about what profession they may choose, because they have grown up during a downturn, when everything looks sideways. What’s a good choice for them in working on improving our world in a tangible way? It seems to me like you could call it a fight to quality in how we choose our avocations to be our vocations.

Inhabitat: You’ve really twisted assumptions on two things that I’ve heard about engineers before. A: that engineers used to be the pessimists and the architects were the optimists. That was the tension. And B: that engineers were the specialists and other types of professions were the generalists. You’ve just twisted those two central concepts of engineering on its head in this conversation.

Greg Bentley: I think we’ve helped with information technology in this regard. Everything can talk to everything else, with wireless, ubiquity, and sensors on everything, and those are so inexpensive. They’re free. We don’t have to invent this technology. We just have to apply it. Just to apply it is so attractive and so the engineers should be optimists and advocates.

Then, as far as the architects, there is real appeal to being able to get things done practically. As far as specializing, you can take advantage of information technology, and that’s the general skill that I think our kids are learning with SimCity. The difference between the city they’re designing in SimCity and the work they can be doing as engineers is less all the time and will be more so in the future.

Inhabitat: There are five Bentley brothers in your family. Did you build anything with them when you were growing up?

Greg Bentley: I’ve been waiting all of my life for someone to ask that question. The other four brothers are real engineers and I’m kind of an overhead, fluff guy, although the only thing I ever did for a living was write software. Growing up our father, who was a mechanical engineer, invented what we called the boards, and they were notched pieces of plywood that were long and we could build them into houses and forts. They were to scale. You would walk in and be inside, and that’s my recollection of being exposed. You know, there was no ‘virtual’ at the time. It was virtual because we created it. It was our Future City. But it really is a fond memory that I think did influence my brothers all to become engineers, and I hope I can help with engineering, too.

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