A new way of looking at what engineers do: “The Landscape of Practice”

This term came out of a struggle to write a paper on the theoretical foundations of engineering practice.

Please don’t laugh! For me as an academic, though I am also practicing as an engineer, it’s my job to write papers that discuss philosophical and theoretical foundations of engineering ideas. Theories can be really helpful in understanding what engineers do, just as they are helpful in understanding our physical world.

I like to explain it this way.

As engineers, most of us are comfortable with the idea of multidimensional spaces.

So, think about a multidimensional space that embraces all the possible solutions for an engineering challenge.

Now think about yet another dimension, that of engineering difficulty. In this dimension, the hills represent regions where the solution is difficult and the valleys where it is easy. Of course, for any one challenge, there will be lots of hills and valleys because engineering challenges have an infinity of different solutions. The landscape of engineering practice is complex and always changing.

The laws of natural science and mathematics typically define the boundaries of the multidimensional space, the edges of the landscape. Steel alloys are only so strong. Electronic signals can’t travel faster than the speed of light. But within these boundaries, there are endless possible solutions for a given challenge.

In practice, however, there are lots of other constraints that make things easy or difficult. For example, is the technology new to the people who have to work with it? How long do they have to learn it, along with the pitfalls? How much time do we have to complete the project? Whose intellectual property can we use? How much risk is the client prepared to accept? Is the work going to be done in a major city or at a remote site? Will the team be located together or will they be geographically dispersed? Have all the key players worked before with each other in the past? Do we have to keep things really easy because we have to work with the B team or the C team who will muck it up if they get half a chance? These issues and so many more define the contours of the hills and valleys of the landscape of practice. Choosing the best solution, therefore, has to take so many socio-technical issues into account and this explains why the choice often has little to do with the technical factors alone.

This book is mainly about the way that social factors influence the technical and vice versa. That’s why understanding this landscape requires some insight into human and social behaviour. You can’t simply separate out what many engineers would instinctively call non-technical factors and put them into another basket for someone else to deal with because they all present technical implications. And that’s why these issues have to be dealt with by engineers. No one else can do that.

So this idea of “the landscape of practice” is just a way to help us understand that the different ways engineers work together with other people, the socio-technical factors, are as critical for engineers as the technical factors that many like to call “real engineering”. As if all the other factors are not real! Working with all these factors is real engineering in the landscape of practice.

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