Pursuing smart solutions to the world’s biggest challenges requires that engineers play an active role in setting the agenda of change. How do we get to that point?
Today’s problems are disruptive, messy and increasingly complex, whether it’s shaping the cities of the future, creating resilient rural communities, addressing poverty and social injustice, or mitigating the impacts of climate change.
Building a smart nation needs smart engineers, and not just ‘smart’ in the technical sense, but those who embrace more unconventional smarts. These engineers must be more engaging, persuasive, collaborative or co-creative – traits not normally associated with stereotypical, introverted engineers.
Past, present, future
Engineers will shape our future, just as they shaped the past. Understanding what makes a city, town or region resilient, sustainable and ready for an uncertain future requires collaboration between government, urban planners, scientists, economists, ecologists, sociologists, architects and – critically – engineers.
When things don’t work – a tunnel leaks, blackouts occur, train networks grind to a halt or flooding engulfs vast swathes of land – engineers are usually the first ones tasked with solving the problem.
So whether working in the public or private sector, engineers tend to be looked upon as the problem-solvers. Looking for a way to interconnect city locales, or need more buildings in the CBD? Is a new dam needed or maybe a new airport needs to be delivered? Call in the engineers to design a solution.
However, I also believe it’s time for engineers to be more visible in their contributions and play a more active part in the design of a better future. Look at how Elon Musk changed the energy debate. He is setting the agenda for the modern energy market, as opposed to following someone else’s direction. But how and why is Musk doing this so effectively and successfully?
Master of one
For me, the critical thing that empowers engineers to shape the future is for each one of us to retain technical mastery of our chosen field. But what does this entail? Whether working in civil, structural, mechanical, electrical or in IT, engineers must be the true masters of their craft, thus enabling each one of us to speak from a position of authority and gravitas. Mastery is about seeing the bigger picture, having the insight to connect the dots, and being able to make the complex simple.
As individuals, engineers must develop powerful soft skills in such areas as communications, collaboration, design and trans-disciplinary thinking. They must also bring to the fore their passion for their craft, and connect the same to human needs and emotions. Do this, and each engineer becomes more persuasive, like Elon Musk, who is able to bring ‘nerdy topics’ to a broad-based audience and capture the public’s imagination.
Developing soft skills is often more challenging for engineers because of the traditional way we have been educated. The science of engineering teaches people to apply the immutable laws of physics and maths in order to develop solutions to problems. The solution is either right or wrong; it will work or it won’t.
But having a solution purely rooted in being technically correct is no longer enough. We must be able to incorporate the human element in our solutions, and that is never black and white – more often it is a spectrum of greys.
I believe the answer is to become a T-shaped engineer. One with deep technical expertise on one plane and broad-based soft skills running down the other. Through a development programme I launched in 2016, we are already actively developing engineers of the future through our in-house design academy. Our aim is to take good engineers and make them great. Our intensive programme focuses on activities such as art, abstract modelling and gamification to build expertise in skills not traditionally associated with engineering.
We are disrupting our engineers’ thinking, and disruption is not new to the world of engineers. In the past 50 years, we’ve gone from slide rules to CAD, to designing in 3D and presenting using virtual and augmented reality.
If an algorithm can be written to automate something, engineers are often the ones to do it. As economies continue to be disrupted, I am frequently asked whether an engineer can be replaced by artificial intelligence? My response is this: any engineer who can connect their deep technical mastery to innate human needs and emotions will not be easily replaced.
As the designers of the infrastructure upon which so much of the world’s success rests, every engineer owes it to themselves to disrupt their traditional function and approach to their profession and play a bigger, more creative role in shaping the world’s future.