Trevor Johnson is a civil engineer with over 40 years of experience in the fields of urban development, hydraulics, water quality and engineering infrastructure. Trevor holds a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours), Master of Engineering Science and Doctor of Philosophy, all in civil engineering from the University of Queensland.
Trevor is a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers Australia as well as a Registered Professional Engineer Queensland (RPEQ 4744), and an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Queensland. From 1996 to 2015 Trevor was a Director of the international consulting engineering company Cardno Ltd, and he is currently employed as a Technical Director with SLR Consulting.
How long have you been a member of Engineers Australia?
I have been a Member or Fellow of Engineers Australia for about 35 years. At the time that I graduated, it was necessary to have at least five years of design and construction experience before becoming eligible for corporate membership of the Institution.
Why did you pursue a career in engineering?
I was always good at mathematics and science at school, so it was a natural fit. However, I did flirt with the concept of doing a law degree as I also enjoyed English. Now, as an engineering expert witness in the Australian legal system, I work routinely with legal concepts as they apply to civil and water engineering.
How can Australian communities/people/society benefit from your work now and in the future?
In a general sense, the entire Australian community benefits immensely from the work that engineers do to provide all of the infrastructure which underpins urban development. The only reason that modern western civilisation can exist is because of the engineering invention of sewerage collection and sewage treatment.
On a personal note, I work extensively on urban development and infrastructure projects where there are significant environmental concerns which need to be carefully managed. I see it as my role to apply the highest level of engineering science to successfully balance the competing interests of development and conservation.
What is the most challenging or interesting project you’ve ever worked on?
I enjoy every project that I work on, big or small. My biggest challenges have been when I have assumed that my existing skill set was fit for purpose on a project, but was subsequently found wanting. I have therefore found that there is no substitute for ongoing education and learning, and for detailed preparation, particularly when undertaking court-based work. If you have any technical weaknesses, court will expose them cruelly.
What do you see as one of the biggest issues facing the engineering profession?
I work extensively in the area of numerical modelling for flood engineering. I continually lament that the ready availability of commercial programs allows inexperienced engineers to undertake analysis tasks for which they are not sufficiently qualified. There is no substitute for experience, and this lesson needs to be continually made to the profession and the community generally. All models are wrong, some are useful. This is a mantra that we should continually apply.
With the advent of expert systems and artificial intelligence, we need to ensure that the human component of engineering expertise and experience is still strongly recognised.
What excites you about the future of the profession or what opportunities do you see for the future?
Exponentially increasing computer capability is both a blessing and a curse. It will enable engineers to carry out increasingly complex analyses using more rigorous and accurate computational methods. Soon we will be able to determine whether a butterfly flapping its wings in China can create a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean. The growth in remote data collection capability will undoubtedly fuel this explosion in modelling of the natural environment.
However, we need to ensure that there is always a human engineering component to the work that we undertake, and that the results of modelling make sense. There is too often a reliance solely on the output of a computer model, where engineering experience is relegated to second-best. This tendency has to be fought at all costs.
Who is your engineering hero?
I was taught superbly at the University of Queensland, and two academic mentors stand out for their intellect, integrity and application of common sense to engineering problems. I was lucky enough to have Professor Colin Apelt as an undergraduate lecturer, as well as the thesis supervisor for both my Masters’ and Doctoral degrees. He impressed on me the value of engineering science and experience in making sense of the chaotic world in which we operate, and inspired me to be the best technical engineer that I could be.
I also had the benefit of being taught by Dr Derek Brady at both undergraduate and graduate levels. His teaching methods and sage advice on common sense (and simple) approaches to complex engineering problems have stayed with me over the subsequent 40 years, and have served me very well over that time. Engineers don’t need computational accuracy to four decimal points.
Image: provided by Trevor Johnson