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My Experience at the SESOC Conference in New Zealand

Thursday, September 26, 2019  

By Jenn Ciofolo, PE

I was very fortunate to be able to attend the SESOC conference in Auckland in August of this year. Heading into the conference, I did not fully understand the conference theme of “challenging the profession”, but after two and a half days in attendance, I understood what the theme means to the structural engineering community in New Zealand. The first thing I noticed at the welcome happy hour was that the community in New Zealand is very small. Everyone seemed to know everyone -- it was a very small and tight knit community. There were several presentations and conversations during the conference that showed great similarities between the California structural engineering community and the New Zealand structural engineering community. These talks included a diversity and inclusion discussion, seismic evaluation and retrofit discussions and unreinforced masonry retrofit discussions. However, there were two presentations in particular that have really stuck with me and that I think are worth sharing.
 
The thing that has been stuck so vividly in my mind since leaving the conference is the recurring theme of the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, as well as the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake. The prevalence of these earthquakes and the impact that they have had on the structural engineering community in New Zealand is still very much in the forefront of structural engineering discussions. In California, a lot of structural engineering discussions tend to be either Pre-Northridge or Post-Northridge, and I get the impression that the Christchurch earthquakes will always be this similar turning point in engineering in New Zealand.
 
The keynote speakers on day 1, Des Bull and Alistair Cattanach presented on the topic “10 Things About the Industry”, which was a talk centered on significant changes to structural engineers following recent earthquakes, including both technical and ethical challenges, in the public eye in New Zealand. This talk discussed how much attention the structural engineering profession has received in recent years from the general public. The speakers discussed things that are closely related to topics in California, such as a need to ensure that young engineers don’t rely too heavily on technology, and ensuring that the general public understands that the design of structures for life safety does not ensure that a structure will not be damaged.  
 
There was one presentation in particular, the opening talk on the last day of the conference by Paul Campbell, that is so vividly stuck in my mind. This presentation was titled “The Professional Challenges of Rapid Change – How Recent Events Have Shaped the Discussion” and focused on changes in the structural engineering community in New Zealand following recent earthquakes. Paul showed a chart comparing causes of death to public outrage. The chart showed cancer and car accidents as causes of death, compared with a low public outrage. The chart also showed plane crashes as a cause of death with a high public outrage. Right in line with plane crashes were earthquake related deaths with a high rate of public outrage. As structural engineers, we are always thinking about life safety. It is the focus of our designs with the intent of public safety. However, I am not sure we take the time to step back and think about how much trust the general public puts in us (mostly subconscious trust) that when they occupy a building they will be safe. This is a lesson that I will not soon forget.