The regular biennial North American Tunneling (NAT) Conference, combined with a World Tunnel Congress and the 42nd General Assembly of the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association (ITA), added up to an event of extraordinary dimension. With more than 2,300 registered delegates, an exhibition of almost 300 display booths, and a technical session of more than 185 podium presentations, the WTC2016 held in San Francisco this week, and hosted by the UCA of SME, has been hailed as the largest gathering of international underground construction professionals ever.
It was more than the familiar NAT occasion, and the dilution of the regular NAT delegates by the international contingent gave the event a split personality with the UCA of SME organizers working hard to accommodate the extra scope of the WTC and ITA requirements.
Nevertheless, the staging of the Congress at the purpose-built Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco was appreciated as an impressive success and a significant improvement on the faulted staging of WTC2015 in Dubrovnik, Croatia, last year. All Congress events were held in the same building, rather than spread across four or five hotel locations, and the exhibition was hosted under one roof, rather than split between two separate and distant temporary marquees. The abstracts submitted were well vetted and appraised for acceptance in the conference proceedings, and the SME team handled the sessions and schedule of additional events with experienced professionalism.
Next year, in 2017, the WTC and 43rd General Assembly of the ITA will be held in Bergen, Norway. Following that, in 2018, in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. For 2019 the representatives of the 73 ITA Member Nations voted for Italy to host the 45th ITA General Assembly and World Tunnel Congress in the city of Naples. Italy won over three rival bids from Istanbul, Turkey; Salzburg, Austria; and London, in the UK, which came a close second on the two rounds of voting.
For the ITA it was a particularly testing meeting. It was the year to vote for a new President to succeed Søren Degn Eskesen following his three years at the helm. None of the four Vice Presidents, however, declared to stand for election. Rick Lovat of Canada, as First Vice President, declined strong support to become the next President; and so Tarcisio Celestino of Brazil agreed to run uncontested and was duly elected to the post by a majority of the voting Member Nations. Amanda Ellioff of the USA, and Daniele Peila of Italy, are the two other Vice Presidents whose terms ended at this year’s 2016 General Assembly.
Further indication of apathy about the governorship of the Association was illustrated by only three candidates standing for a potential six vacancies on the Executive Council. All three received the necessary majority in a vote by Member Nation representatives and the remaining three will remain vacant until a new round of voting at next year’s 43rd General Assembly in Bergen. In the meantime, four ExCo members were elected to Vice President positions – Alexandre Gomes of Chile, Ruth Haug of Norway, Eric Leca of France, and Jenny Yan of China. The next presidential elections will take place at the 2019 ITA General Assembly.
Further disquiet about the management of the International Association was expressed by the Animateurs and Chairs of the ITA Working Groups and Committees. A strong case was put for improvement in the operation and management of the Secretariat, with calls for a full time Executive Director to upgrade the part-time position currently held by Olivier Vion. This was supplemented by calls for further management resources in support of the four part-time members of the current Secretariat team. Many supporters of the ITA expressed concern that the Association has outgrown its part-time Secretariat and voluntary status of ExCo membership, and that full-time employment of dedicated and professional managers and executives is now needed to manage the workings of the Association and push through development and governance strategies for the benefit of all the members. Otherwise, warned several Working Group Animateurs and Committee Chairs, the ITA will suffer from mismanagement and become less well prepared to meet new demands for growth. Failure to make the switch to professional status also runs the risk of the ITA becoming irrelevant as the representative of the tunnelling and underground space disciplines within the global infrastructure construction industry.
There is now a great need to improve the governance structure of the International Association, which is largely unchanged since its inception in the early 1970s, to enable advancement towards a new level of relevance and recognition. However, there seems to be a reluctance, or lack of motivation or commitment, to spearhead the necessary changes at executive level. This might well spell trouble ahead for the structure and management of the Association, and for its new ExCo line-up.