He may not yet be the international political force that Bill once was, but Colin Clinton knows how to use power to effect change – and not just at the ICE. We talk to him about his modernising agenda, globalisation and lawn mowing.

Colin Clinton knows the power that can lie in a name. “I just pick up the phone and say ‘Clinton’,” he says. “They know what to do.” His loyal servants may be the kitchen staff at his local curry house, but much like his US namesake, the new president of the Institution of Civil Engineers clearly knows a good line when he hears it. Unfortunately for the ICE’s reactionary stalwarts, he is set to be more of a reformer than Bill ever was.

Next month 48-year-old Colin Clinton will become the ICE’s youngest ever president. Anyone who thinks he will be content to sit back and bask in the glory of this achievement is mistaken. Clinton is eager and bursting with energy. So eager, in fact, that he’s implementing sweeping changes before he’s even started.

“As I walk into this role, I’ve reformed it,” Clinton says. If that sounds arrogant, it’s also true. In the run-up to his appointment, Clinton has conducted a purge of the ICE’s public diary, sweeping aside historic engagements that he says bear no relation to his vision of the institution’s future. In their place are a series of “question time” sessions for workers and directors: 100 in the next year. The aim is to get engineers involved in the issues affecting the institution, and to gain popular support for his programme of change.

And he’s practised at getting people to listen. “I always talk to people I meet on the train about civil engineering,” he says. “I tell them what the industry is all about.” Pause. “Sometimes they move away. But not very often.” His evangelical zeal extends to taxi drivers. “The ‘president Clinton’ anecdote means they’ll tell their next passenger about me. Connecting with the public is important.”

As well as modernising the ICE’s public face, Clinton’s agenda also includes the merging of institutions. Two of the industry’s opinion formers, Mark Whitby of Whitbybird, and Peter Rogers of Stanhope, recently called for professional institutions, including the ICE, Institution of Structural Engineers, the RIBA and the RICS to be replaced by one Institute for the Built Environment. Many reacted angrily to the possibility that they might lose their identity – RIBA president George Ferguson said the idea was “trendy”.

Unsurprisingly, Clinton favours wholesale reform. “I am a strong supporter of a single institution,” he says. “I see total sense in it. The industry needs to present one face and one voice if it is going to influence government.”

Clinton’s unequivocal statement may provoke anger from what is still a deeply conservative industry, but he remains unfazed. “I wouldn’t call what’s going on a ‘row’,” he says. “It’s very healthy debate. I’m delighted it’s happening now, when I can be properly involved.”

I see total sense in having a single institution. The industry needs to present one voice

Clinton is also prepared to court controversy over the UK industry’s international relations.

A construction lawyer recently bemoaned the extent of European involvement on the nation’s sites, remarking that the UK industry was “in danger of disappearing down the throats of French and German organisations”.

Clinton disagrees. “I’m a true Europhile,” he says. “An expanded Europe represents a tremendous opportunity. In our industry we can’t afford to be an island. There are skills shortages in the UK, so we need to be thinking about projects on a global scale.”

Clinton himself is no stranger to such collaboration. As a senior infrastructure manager for Arup, he has partnered with foreign companies such as Toyota, and in earlier days at the ICE, he was responsible for changing the name of the international section to “regional”. “The word international is redundant. We are global, even if our headquarters is in London.”

Clinton also accepts that civil engineering will be an inevitable target of criticism. Rail work in particular has come under scrutiny after the spate of train accidents that began with Potters Bar. Clinton says the nature of the industry means it will always risk receiving bad press if design methods are to be tested and improved. “We have to accept that in much of what we do as engineers we solve problems, which means we have to push the boundaries of design,” he says. “Inevitably we will make mistakes during that process, but our job is to keep looking for improvements.”

To support his stance on meeting difficulty head-on, Clinton cites an example from his personal life. Eighteen months ago, Clinton and his wife Linda lost their teenage daughter Emma after a lifelong battle with physical and mental disability. “Being with Emma had a profound effect on me,” says Clinton. “I try to apply her situation to my own life. There will always be problems, but there will also be things you can do to make situations better.”

Those within the ICE may argue over what constitutes “better”, but in Clinton’s mind the way forward is clear. And anyone who disapproves will struggle to impeach this particular president.

Clinton on ...

... the US presidential election
It will be very close, but I think Bush will tweak it. Unless people can ask for a recount in Florida.

... lawn mowing
It's a fantastic way to relax. I'm serious. I'll mow anyone's lawn.
... music
I'm a big jazz fan, but I want to keep up my youthful image here ... Jools Holland? Is he too old?

... aeroplanes
My favourite way to travel. I love the way you feel slightly outside of space and time. It's very peaceful.

... drinking
I'm a real ale man. I love being in a country pub with a pint.