Australian Election Surprise

Some of you may be disappointed with the Australian federal election result last Saturday. Especially if you think like I do, that we need to take stronger action to reduce greenhouse emissions and also to prepare people for much warmer weather to come.

Actually, there’s not much politicians can really do. Think about it. Pretty much everything we need to do to reduce greenhouse emissions relies on engineering and that in turn relies on private finance.

Coal fired power stations are not uneconomic because of the cost of coal and generation equipment. They’re only uneconomic because financiers suspect that no one will be able to operate these power stations after about 10-15 years. So instead of recouping the money over 30 years, the project proponent has to show how they can recoup the finance and interest (hiked for risk) over 10 years. That makes the whole project less commercially attractive than renewables like solar and wind.

It’s unrealistic to expect governments in a coal producing country to rule out coal-fired power stations. But there’s no need to. Risk-averse banks and pension funds do it for us. As they will in India, China and other countries as well.

We now have engineering solutions for reducing and eliminating most greenhouse emissions.

Take Close Comfort for example. Small localised air-conditioners greatly extend the temperature range in which people can be comfortable in hot conditions. Up to 45° or so. Close Comfort can help eliminate greenhouse emissions caused by air-conditioners. That’s expected to reduce warming about 0.5° compared with business as normal by the end of the century. What’s more, people will be paying much less on their electricity bills. And governments will be collecting less taxes as a result.

In other words, no government action is necessary. Sometimes, governments can get in the way with outdated regulations. In theory, governments could help. But that relies on politicians and committees making smart decisions: sometimes they do but not always.

Of course, as engineers we need to remind ourselves that it’s our job to enable people to do more with less: less effort, less energy, less material resources, less health risks, less uncertainty for investors, and less environmental disturbance.

And we also have to learn to collaborate better: something that is not acknowledged in engineering schools, let alone taught. That way we will be more likely to deliver on our promises and improve our present appalling project delivery performances. Fixing that would make it easier to get investors on-side.

So let’s not worry too much about politicians and get on and do the things that we need to do: things they cannot do anything about. If we as engineers provide solutions which make life easier for people, and save money, we don’t need government assistance. And I know we can do that when it comes to energy efficiency and greenhouse emissions. Some issues, like plastics pollution, probably do need government action. But we need to recognise where politics can help and where it just gets in the way.

Redefining Engineering

Maybe you guessed I spent much of my “free” time last year writing and editing a new book “30-Second Engineering” (available at Amazon from October 1). You can see a preview here.

This was a challenge: how to describe every major field of engineering, common methods and ideas, with interesting new aspects of engineering in 50 pages with just 180 words for each. I had to learn how to write extremely compact prose and edit pieces from 28 other contributors into a consistent style. Katie Crous, the copy editor, was such a great help in this.

The book starts with an introduction and, in writing that, I realised that I had to redefine engineering to recapture its essence. I have been researching engineering practice, what engineers actually do, for nearly twenty years, and perhaps the short definition below brings all that research into two sentences.

Of course, a preamble is helpful:

Engineering is mysterious. Many people have notions of engineers designing and performing complicated mathematical calculations. Some engineers do that, but very few spend much time on it. Many think that engineers build bridges or make cars. However, few engineers would know how to make, let alone fix a car. If you see an engineer working with tools on a bridge, something has probably gone wrong. Move away, fast! Of course, locomotive engineers drive trains in America, but we are thinking of engineers who practice a knowledge-based profession.
Engineering is much more than what engineers do, and the best way to understanding it is to understand what engineers actually do. Even with around 300 specialised engineering fields, there is remarkable consistency in engineering practice, everywhere:

Engineers are people with technical knowledge and foresight who conceive, plan and organise delivery, operation and sustainment of man-made objects and systems. These objects and systems enable people to do more with less effort, time, materials, energy, uncertainty, health risk and environmental disturbances.

Why do we need to redefine engineering?

Take a look at today’s Wikipedia definition, the result of popular consensus, and an accurate reflection of what students and young engineers learn in school:

Engineering is the application of knowledge in the form of science, mathematics, and empirical evidence, to the innovation, design, construction, operation and maintenance of structures, machines, materials, software, devices, systems, processes, and organizations.

Notice several key elements are missing. There is no reference to the need for economy, reducing uncertainty, health risk and environmental disturbances. Without these, how can the reader understand why engineering is helpful and worthwhile? How can students understand why their work as engineers will be valuable for humanity?

In the next few years we will need large productivity gains to at least maintain living standards as we transform our technologies to reduce resource consumption while populations age and the climate warms. While engineers are not the only people who can improve productivity, they are extremely important contributors. Current signs of weakness in productivity growth include:

  1. Large reductions in global productivity growth since the mid-2000s (Manyika et al., 2015), sometimes referred to as the productivity paradox;
  2. Persistent productivity gaps between advanced and emerging economies that have not shifted in several decades (Manyika et al., 2015, p48); and
  3. Appalling completion rates for engineering projects, especially large ones.

There are some directly related aspects of engineering education that, once identified, seem obvious on reflection:

  1. Engineering students do not learn that productivity improvement is the engineering raison d’être, its ultimate purpose.  If asked about the purpose of engineering most students mention technical problem solving and a vague notion that engineering improves the world, without explaining how: productivity is rarely if ever mentioned.
  2. If engineers do not understand that their main responsibility is to improve productivity, we should not be surprised that global productivity growth is slowing.
  3. As noted in earlier blog posts on this site, engineers themselves find it hard to explain the commercial benefits arising from the work they perform. Since they are not taught to understand this, this observation should not be surprising.
  4. Engineering students do not learn engineering practice: how to deliver practical results in line with expectations.  Therefore it is not so surprising to find low completion success rates for engineering projects, largely due to collaboration weaknesses While students are often required to work in groups, they are seldom if ever taught how to collaborate effectively, let alone with the diverse cast of stakeholders that engineers confront in the workplace.

If most engineers, especially in emerging economies could understand that their task is to improve productivity, and acquire socio-technical capabilities that today have been mastered by a mere handful of expert engineers, we might see renewed global productivity growth. Then we would have a much better chance of transforming our technologies and societies to eliminate much of the poverty we see today and achieve the new set of UN Sustainable Development Goals.  We would also have a much better chance of eliminating greenhouse emissions in time.

It is notable that UN documents on the sustainable development goals hardly mention engineering at all, except as a desirable qualification for people in poor countries to pursue careers in wealthier countries!

As the famous economist Paul Krugman wrote “Productivity isn’t everything but in the long run it is almost everything”.

This ultimate purpose of engineering, to improve human productivity, could readily be learned by by any engineer or student, and I think should be. What do you think?

Will registration of engineers prevent failures like the Opal Towers in Sydney?

Happy Australia Day!

Happy India Republic Day!

Engineers Australia is pushing for mandatory registration of engineers and other key professionals in the Australian construction industry, following recommendations from a report by Peter Shergold and Bronwyn Weir prepared for the Building Minister’s Forum.

Despite welcome recommendations in the report to improve the standard of documentation and formal checking, our research showed that engineers are disinclined to perform rigorous checking of design documents, even when they are required to in the context of strict quality assurance systems for hazardous installations.

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Close Comfort can disrupt the air conditioning industry and help save the planet

Richard Branson has helped publicize the recently announced Global Cooling Prize on his blog, calling for disruption of the air conditioning industry. It’s nice to have forward thinking confirmed by others because Close Comfort already meets or exceeds most of the prize requirements!

Close Comfort can help save the planet by eliminating one of the largest predicted sources of greenhouse emissions, and this could be done soon enough to help avoid a climate catastrophe.

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Has Paul Romer missed something in development economics?

Paul Romer, chief economist at the World Bank until earlier this year, is certainly worthy of the recognition that comes with sharing the Nobel Prize for economics.

But, has he missed something, along with many others?

His famous 1990 paper on endogenous growth theory explained the success of Western economies in leveraging the power of ideas, creating enormous prosperity, and elevating the notion of “technology” as the key for economic growth. For the last decade, much of his effort has been focused on promoting economic development for the world’s poor, most of whom live in less developed countries.

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A great honour…

I was surprised and honoured to learn that I have been selected as a finalist in the professions category for West Australian of the Year:

I have to say thank you to those who nominated me first and the judging panel.  I also need to thank everyone who has been part of my life and the projects which were cited in the award and so many others too.  Thank you to all the Close Comfort team and so many customers who have bought our products.  Many good people at UWA, particularly in the engineering and mathematical sciences faculty, deserve recognition for all the help and support they have provided.  Thank you to my family and so many other people who have helped and supported me for so long.

Just one thing, since I have your attention.  We in Australia are so fortunate, a vast and richly endowed continent, with so many wonderful energetic people who care about the world.  We can help others build a better future for all.  I feel so fortunate that I have been able to help with ideas and inventions that could improve life for everyone,  especially those suffering from heat and inadequate drinking water.  Our future depends on how we help the least fortunate, everywhere, and at the same time help build a better world for our children and grandchildren.  There are lots of ways to help: please do what you can, either yourself or by supporting people who can make a difference.


Engineers: I need your help

I have taken on the job of editing a short book – 30 Second Engineering being published by Ivy Press.  The aim is to provide non-engineers with a quick introduction to what engineering is all about.

The book is part of a widely published, popular series and is likely to be translated into many languages.

Part of the challenge is to describe everything about engineering a non-engineer might want to know in 50 paragraphs of 220 words, each encapsulating a separate engineering topic!

Here’s a draft for mechatronics, just to give you an idea of the content we are aiming for.

I need your help with suggestions for famous engineers to be featured in the book, particularly engineers from Asian or other countries and not so well known in the English-speaking world.

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Energy Savers Cooling a Warming World

You probably know that I now spend most of my time running our little technology startup company Close Comfort.   We recently passed a significant milestone with over 1000 of our energy-saving air conditioners sold to happy customers.

It all started with my marriage to wonderful wife and partner Samina Yasmeen.  Living with her Pakistan family brought summer reality.

Two billion people South Asia dread the summer. Shimmering heat starts in March and April and stifling sweaty nights last into November.  Listless days follow nights of fitful sleep at 40C under noisy fans. A tiny privileged elite run energy guzzling split air conditioners, crippling electricity grids.

Load shedding, a novelty in Australia, is routine across south Asia and Africa: power is on and off every hour or two.  Batteries keep fans and LED lights on but the unit electricity cost soars.

Sustainable relief from heat and humidity is now in sight thanks to our energy-saving air conditioning technology.   It’s a great thrill that our air conditioners are now in 5 countries, albeit with small-scale marketing campaigns.

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Guide for Value Creation in the Engineering Enterprise (Updated March 4, 2018)

  • Engineers’ remuneration and recognition is strongly related to the value they create – a well-supporting finding in economics.
  • Our research shows that engineers today know little about value creation, and what little they do know does not align well with investors’ ideas.
  • We conclude therefore that engineers will be paid less than they think they are worth (which agrees with survey findings) and second, there is plenty of potential to improve engineers’ remuneration and recognition if they take the time to learn how to create value.

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The Great Artificial Intelligence Scam (Again)

{A longer version of this post appeared in the Australian Financial Review on August 18th under the title “When robots learn to lie, then we worry about AI“.}

Great claims are being made for artificial intelligence these days: AI.

Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s assistant, Apple’s Siri: these are all claimed as examples of AI.  Yet speech recognition is hardly new: we have seen steady improvements in software like Dragon for 20 years.

We have seen claims that AI with new breakthroughs like ‘deep learning’ could displace 2 million or more Australian workers from their jobs by 2030.

I was fortunate to discuss artificial intelligence with a philosopher, Julius Kovesi, in the 1970s as I led the team that eventually developed sheep shearing robots.  With great insight, he argued that robots, in essence, were built on similar principles to common toilet cisterns and were nothing more than simple automatons.  “Show me a robot that deliberately tells you a lie to manipulate your behaviour, and then I will accept you have artificial intelligence!” he exclaimed.

That’s the last thing we wanted in a sheep shearing robot, of course.

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