Structural engineer Professor Hanif Kara FREng is Design Director and Co-Founder of London-based engineering practice AKT II. He is currently Professor in Practice of Architectural Technology at Harvard Graduate School of Design. He also taught as Professor of Architectural Technology at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm from 2009 to 2012.
“I would say growing up in Uganda where the absence of built environment was a daily challenge, I was acutely aware that engineering improves quality of life at many scales.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
I am fortunate enough to have co-founded, and still lead, a practice that has helped build some of the most innovative and important projects in the UK and internationally over the last two decades. Projects include the King’s Cross Masterplan, many buildings for the London 2012 Olympics, the Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Azerbaijan and Birmingham New Street Station. The practice has won international acclaim and over 350 design awards. I am also a Professor of Architectural Technology at the Graduate School Of Design, Harvard University, Boston. These roles mean that I am expected to lead teams, teach and learn, and communicate great ideas that invent ways of contributing to the engineering of a better world.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I liked mathematics and physics at school, but as a child in Uganda I also spent time on sites when my dad worked in construction. I would say that growing up in Uganda, where the absence of built environment was a daily challenge, I was acutely aware that engineering improves quality of life at many scales.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
There are many: it’s a constellation of moments and experiences, therefore it’s difficult to pick the buildings or to even refer to the many awards and the success of the work. I would have to say that something that gives me immense pride is the peer recognition beyond the engineering community. Being appointed a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design, after a very competitive international search process, was also a highlight as it took me outside the conventional envelope of what engineers in practice do and it was also a first for the school. My appointment as the first structural engineer to be commissioner of the Design Council's Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) was also a proud moment. Most recently, I was reappointed as part of the steering committee for the world-renowned Aga Khan Award for Architecture, not to mention being a judge on the RIBA Stirling Prize jury. To be honest, the engineering institutions were among the slowest in recognising merit.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
I get to work with many different types of buildings and consequently meet a whole range of clients, architects, constructors and users. This aspect of affecting and collaborating with so many people is one of the most challenging aspects, but is equally very fulfilling, especially when they really appreciate what I do with and for them. Solving problems through technical applications is extremely satisfying and there is rarely a boring moment or day when one doesn’t learn something new or meet imaginative people.
How do you think racial parity in engineering can be achieved?
Through early education, motivation and incentivisation of minority communities. The problem is that they are just not in the industry in numbers. Talent can be nurtured. This tends to be discussed casually and there is no silver bullet answer to this, just various shades of experiences and actions that need to be taken. First, we need to move away from being casual about it and find out if there is a problem in the profession and how big it actually is before we define parity.
Has being a BAME engineer had an impact on your career that is either positive or negative?
I tend to identify myself as a good engineer first and find that most people get past the label of BAME fairly quickly with that approach. I resist homogenisation and promote a difference of another sort; one that is connected to design and engineering rather than belonging to other groupings. Being ‘brown British’ is a fact I cannot change, but by communicating what I do in compelling ways and showing compassion for others, such a question rarely arises.
I also believe everyone would have an individual and different answer. In my particular case, it’s been something that I have turned into an advantage rather than allow others to make it a disadvantage. We live in one of the fairest and most pluralistic societies in the world and I have rarely encountered the racism that is widely spoken about; when I have encountered it, it is from a minority of uneducated people. I believe in meritocracy and I would say it is positive; I am judged by my ability, competence, talent and reputation rather than which marginal community I belong to. Others may have had a different experience but that has been mine.
How has the ethnic diversity of the profession changed since you started working in engineering?
Clearly the profession presents a microcosm of what has happened as the world has opened up because of technological advances in society and a rapid increase in population. New positive role models in public life are reflected in our profession too, which was inevitable, and I see a very positive future despite these political upheavals. The shift of power to China and India, for instance, has had an impact on the talents needed globally and it is inevitable that this trickles into all aspects of the engineering profession.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
What are you waiting for! It’s a long game and every day is exciting. Be prepared to work hard and be creative and the rewards will follow, whatever fulfilment you are looking for.