Q&A: Mark Perniconi, ASCE Innovation Contest Chief Judge

February 22, 2018

Mark Perniconi puts it well: “Innovation is progress.”

Perniconi, P.E., M.ASCE, the executive director for the Charles Pankow Foundation, is serving as the chief judge for ASCE’s 2018 Innovation Contest, a competition that is all about progress toward safer, more efficient infrastructure and meeting the ASCE Grand Challenge.

The third annual contest aims to identify innovative ideas from civil engineers across the board, including students, educators, practitioners, and project managers.

And with the 2018 contest deadline of March 1 approaching, Perniconi talked with ASCE News about why innovation matters.

ASCE News: As the chief judge for the ASCE Innovation Contest, what are you looking for from entrants this year?

Perniconi: With five different contest topics, we hope to see a wide range of proposals across the entire spectrum of the civil engineering disciplines.

In evaluating a proposal, the majority of the weighting focuses on its creativity, relevance, and value proposition. There is a lot of room to focus between short-term practical type proposals and longer-term moon shots.

ASCE News: How would you define innovation?

Mark Perniconi

Mark Perniconi

Perniconi: Unfortunately, in today’s world innovation seems to be correlated with technology and, in particular, anything with an app for a cell phone. And that’s simply not correct.

Certainly, there has been a plethora of innovations that fall under the label of technology, but there is plenty of room for innovation in the “low-tech” aspects of the civil engineering eco-system.

These low-tech areas are the basic tools of the civil engineering profession, many of which have not progressed in decades, or in some cases, centuries. Unless we evolve the basic tools of our profession – the way we design and build structures – the benefits of new technology will be limited.

Simply stated, innovation is progress. It’s a better way to design and build; a more efficient use of materials and labor; a more sustainable way natural resources and energy sources are consumed; more resilient and safer solutions to meet the basic needs of society.

ASCE News: Everyone says, ‘Think outside the box,’ but it’s not always so easy. What advice would you offer a civil engineer for incorporating innovative approaches into his or her work?

Perniconi: The lack of investment in research by the civil engineering profession over the last five decades has left a culture where innovation is not a priority and advancements in the basic tools of the profession have been stagnant. When nothing changes, tremendous efforts are dedicated to defending the status quo, and that remains a serious barrier to innovation.

To overcome these barriers, it requires leadership and the courage to elevate innovation to a prominent position in everyday practice. The tolerance for error and experimentation needs to be re-examined. There need to be incentives in place that allow engineers to depart from established procedures and question whether simply relying on existing building and design codes and standard practices is really the highest calling for civil engineers.

Finally, if you recognize an obvious barrier to innovation, be proactive and change it.

Learn more about the ASCE Innovation Contest and how you can enter.

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