Knowledge Hubs

Building a Meeting Around the Panama Canal

Our yearlong series has come to this: an exclusive on-site report from the 2014 Global Engineering Conference — featuring the Panama Canal, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and a thousand students, professors, and practitioners who want to build a better world.

“This is what it’s all about, right?”

We had just gotten back on our bus after a long, exhilarating morning spent touring the Panama Canal, and while I couldn’t identify the civil engineer who had asked that rhetorical question, it certainly summed up my experience. We’d started at the Miraflores Locks, on the Pacific side of the canal, then driven along Miraflores Lake, past the Pedro Miguel Locks, and crossed the Centennial Bridge — itself a striking feat of engineering that prompted audible groans when it became clear we weren’t going to stop to look at it. Another civil engineer on the bus said, to appreciative chuckles: “Most other tourists probably just want to know where the shopping malls are.”

Once over the bridge we doubled back, proceeding along the towering muddy flank of the new channels being dredged out as part of the canal’s massive expansion program, and wound our way down to a construction site whose entrance was marked with a large sign: Third Set of Locks Project. And then we were donning hard hats and neon-orange safety vests, and standing at a fenced-off overlook, gazing out at the rising concrete hulk of those new locks, unimaginable in their scale even up close. Like watching someone build the Grand Canyon.

Yet another of the engineers in our group noted that there were at least 15 cranes at work on the site. Someone else said: “You know, this whole place is like a small city.”

It was the first full day of the 2014 Global Engineering Conference. And this is what it was all about.


The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) had big plans for its Global Engineering Conference, which was held at the Hotel Riu Plaza Panama in Panama City on Oct. 7–11. It wasn’t just that ASCE set out to build an entire program around the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal, the historic project that dug, dynamited, and dredged a navigable shipping channel between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. ASCE was meeting in an emerging destination where it had never before staged a live program. It was partnering with two different organizations, Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA) and the Panama Canal Authority (ACP). And it was using the opportunity to refocus and rebrand its entire annual meeting, whose attendance had been declining in the face of competition from ASCE’s own technical congresses, which serve specific civil-engineering disciplines.

“We either needed to kill it completely, because it wasn’t serving a purpose, it was just kind of something we did; or we needed to totally revamp it,” said Amanda Rushing, CMP, ASCE’s director of conference and meeting services, sitting with Convene in the executive lounge at the Hotel Riu after breakfast on Friday morning, Oct. 10. (Convene’s attendance at the conference was sponsored in part by the Panama Tourism Authority.) “For the past few years, we’ve been working on that retooling and what that meant. A lot of it had to be focused more on the content. What did that mean to the civil engineer?”

Rushing had repeatedly pointed out to ASCE leadership that the annual meeting varied wildly from year to year depending on the chair of the conference program committee, who often would choose to focus on a specific area, such as leadership, sustainability, or military infrastructure — meaning the conference tended to draw only a niche audience interested in that topic. In the end, ASCE decided that the solution was to create a more consistent, universal experience for attendees. Meeting in Panama City before the conference began, the ASCE Board of Directors approved a “matrix” that Rushing and her team developed that sets certain things in stone, from the number of days the conference would run to a basic framework for the agenda. It’s something they began developing for ASCE’s 2013 Annual Civil Engineering Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, creating a program committee that “was very broad-based across the entire ASCE community,” Rushing said, and a program that was similarly inclusive, with no individual education tracks but rather content that would resonate with most or even all attendees.

ASCE further refined that generalist approach in Panama City, under the theme “From Community Projects to Giga Projects: Civil Engineers Having a Global Impact.” “We had giga [massive-scale] projects and we had community projects,” Rushing said. “But whether they were large or small, there are things [in every session] about finance, public policy, design, and construction. There are aspects that apply whether it’s a huge project or a small one.”


The Global Engineering Conference itself fell somewhere in between those two poles. With attendance of about a thousand and a program confined largely to the Hotel Riu, the conference had an intimate, community-based sensibility. But its narrative, aspirational sweep made it feel decidedly large-scale. “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader,” Randall Over, ASCE’s 2014 board president, said during the opening plenary session on Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 7. He was quoting John Quincy Adams — who as president of the United States, Over noted, was a strong advocate for building up the young country’s internal infrastructure, and presided over the groundbreaking of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in Washington, D.C., in 1828.

Over was followed by Gregory Sauter, president of EWB-USA, which, as part of the conference, presented “Design Global, Engineer Local,” a one-week program for engineering students at Panama’s City of Knowledge campus. “This has been a very special relationship [with ASCE],” Sauter said. “It’s been like having a big brother or big sister to pull you along or lend you tools or advice when you need it.” He added: “We need mentors and leaders like the folks in this room to work with these young students and make their projects a reality.”

But in terms of setting the stage for the conference’s thematic ambition, that task fell to the Panama Canal itself — one of ASCE’s “Seven Wonders of the Modern World,” and the entire reason that the Global Engineering Conference was being held in Panama City. The opening keynote presentation by Jorge Quijano, ACP’s administrator and the conference’s honorary chair, was called “The Panama Canal: 100 Years of Improvement to Meet Demand,” and it was nothing short of shock and awe. Quijano offered barrages of numbers detailing the engineering history of the canal and the ongoing $5.25-billion expansion project, which is scheduled for completion in early 2016: The original construction project — begun by France from 1881 to 1889, and resumed and completed by the United States from 1904 to 1914 — excavated or dredged 200 million cubic meters of earth and poured 3.4 million cubic meters of concrete, while the expansion will excavate 155 million cubic meters of dirt and pour 4.4 million cubic meters of concrete. Each of the 16 rolling gates that will be installed in the new locks weighs anywhere from 2,100 to 3,700 tons and stands from 73 feet to 108 feet high. The canal will handle 326.8 million tons of shipping traffic this year; the expansion project is expected to double the canal’s capacity, in part by allowing it to handle “post-Panamax” size vessels.

Two of ASCE’s past presidents served as chief engineer of the original canal project — and that connection isn’t lost on ACP. “For us it is a great privilege to be given this opportunity [to host ASCE],” Quijano said, “to in a way give thanks to the many ASCE members who helped build this canal.”

The half-day canal tour in which Convene participated the next morning offered the perfect opportunity to see Quijano’s words etched in concrete and steel. It was the rainy season in Panama, the air wet and heavy, the sky low and gray, but none of the 200 or so engineers who queued up outside the Hotel Riu at 8 a.m. complained. About an hour and a half later, they were crowded against the safety rail on the fourth-floor observation deck at Miraflores Locks, watching as the final ship of the morning, the Hong Kong–registered cargo vessel Da Kang, made its way into the locks’ first chamber. The chamber took about eight minutes to fill with water, and then the gates at the far end swung open slowly and the Da Kang edged its way into the next chamber, tethered to two squat electric locomotives on either side that kept the ship centered and steady.

Our group was even more excited — more professionally animated — at the Third Set of Locks Project, where ACP had set up information plaques and poster boards underneath a tent overlooking the huge dig. Several ACP representatives were on hand to answer questions, of which there were many.

If anyone needed help feeling even better about the power of civil engineering, they could find it back at the Hotel Riu later that afternoon, when the Celebration of Leaders Presentation inducted 11 “eminent engineers” as Distinguished Members of ASAE. It was like a roll call for saving the world, with honorees who have done pioneering work in areas such as post-disaster structural assessment, ocean-wave dynamics, water-supply protection, and hazardous-waste sampling. In his acceptance speech, one of the honorees, Thomas D. O’Rourke, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University, noted how it was the “most profound of ironies” that the opening of the Panama Canal on Aug. 15, 1914, was “second-page news” because of World War I. But he took heart. “After a hundred years, we commemorate the fallen of World War I, but we celebrate the Panama Canal,” O’Rourke said. “This proves that we can be better, that construction is better than destruction…. You are the ultimate constructive people. Please go forth and build a better world.”


But we’re getting ahead of the story, at least as far as things went behind the scenes. Rushing arrived in Panama City a week before the conference began, on Wednesday, Oct. 1. She was accompanied by her manager of conference and meeting services, who ran the logistical portion of the program, and one of her coordinators who is fluent in Spanish, to help compensate for the small but noticeable language gap that had nagged the planning process. Rushing had been to the destination for her final site visit less than a month before, during which she’d exhaustively plotted out every final detail of the program. But there were still curveballs when she arrived for the conference.

One was the growth of what had been a loosely planned get-together between ASCE’s and ACP’s leaders into a formal dinner for 30 people — now including officers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose commanding general was speaking as part of the Industry Leaders Forum — in a 34th-floor penthouse suite at the Hotel Riu on Wednesday, Oct. 8. “On Saturday [Oct. 4] I was told I needed to make it happen,” Rushing said. “I was on the phone constantly with the various representatives of the organizations to do that. It was assigned seating. There were a lot of protocols I had to try to figure out on the fly, and then work with the hotel on the dinner.”

At least Rushing had some semblance of warning about that special event. No such luck that same Wednesday, Oct. 8, when Quijano invited Over to his house in the Panama Canal Zone for tea the following afternoon. Rushing learned about that when her phone rang during ASCE’s Celebration of Leaders Reception at about 5:30 p.m. It was a great honor for ASCE, but because the organization installs its new officers during its annual conference, she had to ask if both Over and ASCE’s incoming president could attend — along with ASCE’s soon-to-retire executive director and his successor. “I’m dealing with my [ASCE] contact, plus I’m dealing with the administrator’s aide, trying to explain why I need four people to go to the house,” Rushing said. “And then getting transportation and figuring that out. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are no street signs on the streets [in Panama City]. It’s very hard to get directions or addresses.”

Rushing ended up with a hand-drawn map to the administrator’s house from the vice president of ACP’s engineering division along with an aerial photograph of the Panama Canal Zone with arrows pointing to the house from Quijano’s aide. After all that, the four ASCE officials were a half-hour early to tea, meaning the administrator’s wife had to entertain them until her husband arrived. And then they stayed later than planned, until just before six o’clock, even though they had to be at a dinner by 6:30 p.m. “It was okay. I had gone and talked to the group [holding the dinner],” Rushing said. “There was a little bit of a frenzy over there. The organizer was saying, ‘But I have a script!’ And I said, ‘I understand you have a script. You need to change your script just to be on the safe side.’”


Throughout the conference, each aspect of the program seemed to pick up on or reinforce another — such as the canal tour echoing Quijano’s keynote, or O’Rourke’s acceptance speech sounding a similar note to Sauter’s comments.

Then there was Thursday morning’s breakouts, whose content perfectly encapsulated the conference theme. For giga projects, up on the sixth level of the Hotel Riu a session on “Design Challenges of the Boston Central Artery/Tunnel [CA/T] Project” detailed the famously behind-schedule, over-budget Big Dig project that over the course of 15 years buried Boston’s elevated Central Artery as a 3.5-mile tunnel under the heart of the city, redeveloped the elevated highway as the 15-acre Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, built the 1.6-mile Ted Williams Tunnel under Boston Harbor, and built the Leonard P. Zakim–Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge across the Charles River. Speaker Peter F. Donahue, formerly the CA/T’s deputy program manager, worked on the project for 16 years — “almost half my career,” he said, adding: “It’s often called the largest, most complex, and technologically challenging highway project in American history.”

During the same time slot, four floors down, “Sustainable Community-Design-Driven Project Studies” took up the community-project end of the theme. Four EWB-USA undergraduate-student members from the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) and the University of Maryland shared the lessons they learned from working on village-based engineering projects in developing countries, including Rwanda and Nepal. “These communities need small projects,” said CU’s Ashley Zerr, whose EWB-USA chapter is working on three rainwater-catchment systems in Cyanika, Rwanda. “These giga projects that we’re seeing presentations on here are awesome and they’re needed, but they’re not the correct solution for these communities, where all they want is clean water, or all they want is a school.” At the end of the standing-room-only session, the students received a standing ovation from their audience of visibly moved professional engineers.

That afternoon, ASCE’s Industry Leaders Forum interwove giga and community perspectives, as Anthony S. Bartolomeo, president and CEO of the engineering and design firm Pennoni Associates, interviewed Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, chief of engineers and commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Their conversation covered a lot of ground, literally and beyond, from the Corps’ work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, to the potential effects of the Panama Canal expansion on East Coast ports in the United States, to Corps involvement with projects in 130 different countries, such as flood control in Pakistan and water-resource management in Cambodia. At times, Bostick, a 36-year Army veteran who oversees 700 military personnel and more than 33,000 civilian employees, sounded like an EWB-USA student. “Some of this is not huge,” Bostick said. “It’s projects that really make an impact on hearts and minds, so to speak, of people who can really appreciate what engineers can do.”

All that thematic coherence wasn’t an accident. ASCE deliberately kept programming relatively lean, with no more than three to five concurrent sessions at a time; giga projects like the Panama Canal and the Big Dig were broken down from a variety of different angles in multiple sessions. “We spent a lot of time coordinating with all the plenary speakers,” Rushing said. “The plenaries should be the bigger picture. Then the concurrent sessions drill down into some of the technical details related to the bigger picture. The annual’s purpose is to bring together everyone to talk about the things that will affect the civil-engineering community.”

Even the conference’s bonafide pop-culture celebrity — closing keynoter Grant Imahara, one of the hosts of Discovery Channel’s hit show “MythBusters” — seemed to have gotten the memo. An electrical engineer who previously worked as an animatronics engineer for George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, Imahara called his Friday-afternoon presentation “How to Make Science and Engineering Fun.” “[‘MythBusters’] didn’t set out to be a science show and it didn’t set out to appeal to kids,” Imahara said, “but somehow we ended up doing both.” He ended his talk — and the conference program — with something of a rallying cry for his audience: “We have engineers building the world’s tallest buildings, sending nuclear-powered robots armed with lasers to map the surface of other planets, and we have engineers on television. Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to welcome you to the next golden age of engineering.”


That was Friday afternoon. When we sat down with Rushing on Friday morning, there was still another set of breakout sessions to get through, plus “mini general sessions” and, right before Imahara’s keynote, the closing luncheon — where there wouldn’t be enough seating, and Hotel Riu’s banquet staff would scramble to squeeze additional tables and chairs into the room set, and Rushing would find herself grabbing plates and physically serving lunch to some of her attendees. And there were still more technical tours of the canal scheduled for Saturday, and committee and board meetings on Saturday and Sunday.

Also on Saturday, Rushing was planning on meeting with key ASCE leaders to talk about next year’s annual conference. And she was looking ahead to a program-committee meeting sometime in November, or maybe even late October. It just couldn’t get in the way of ASCE’s new International Conference on Sustainable Infrastructure, being held in Long Beach, California, on Nov. 6–8. And finally, she would be leaving for home on Monday, Oct. 13, about two weeks after she first got to Panama City.

But back with us on Friday morning, Rushing was calm, smiling, enjoying an hour or so off her feet. ASCE’s 2015 annual conference — which probably is going to be rebranded as the ASCE Convention — will be held at the New York Marriott Marquis in Manhattan, and Rushing was already wearing a sparkly New York T-shirt and a bright-red NYC pin. She was feeling very good about the Global Engineering Conference. The preliminary surveys that ASCE had emailed out at the end of each day were coming back with high marks, and people seemed impressed with both the canal and the educational content. “The members are ecstatic,” she said. “I can’t get down a hallway without somebody stopping me, which is a great feeling.”

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.