Why engineer? Why do we do engineering?

I posed this question to my students this morning. It was not an easy question for them to answer, and most were hesitant in offering answers: “Innovate?” “Solve problems?” “Satisfy society needs?” “Provide water, sanitation, basic needs?” To some I posed another question: “okay, but what’s the good of solving problems without implementing solutions?” No answer.

It is perverse, perhaps, that these same students had no difficulty telling me why doctors do medicine. “Save lives” “Heal sick people” “Help people live longer and healthier”.

Nor did they have any difficulty telling me why lawyers are valuable: “They get you out of trouble” “Provide justice, human rights”.

Why is it that young engineers find this question so difficult? The answer is simple. We don’t teach them the answers.

That’s not so easy either. The answers are not so easy to find because, I would argue, they have been forgotten. The real value of engineering only became apparent to me when I spent time helping people in the back streets of South Asian megacities like Lahore, and only because good engineering is conspicuously absent. Electricity is usually only on half the time or less, and the water comes out of the pipes every other day or so for an hour or two. Even then it’s almost certainly unsafe to drink.

In the course of writing my book, I found some explanations. Now, with the book finished, I think I can explain it even more clearly than I did in the book itself.

PS (June 2016) I have been researching the philosophical foundations of these ideas and found there is much more to this that one might think.  I have started a new series of posts which explore these ideas, step by step.  Part of that is explaining what we mean by value creation, and proposing a coherent theory on how engineers create value. The full theory justification will be published in a forthcoming edited book on “The Engineering Business Nexus“.  Write if you want a preview.

It is not that difficult.

What binds all engineers together is what we do. It is remarkably similar across all branches and disciplines of engineering. And it is humanitarian at its core.

Engineering makes it possible for people to live more easily and comfortably because we enable people to do more, with greater certainty, less effort, less consumption of material resources and less energy. All that adds up to less cost, in any system of economics.

Getting there is not so easy, however.

As I tell my students, engineering is the best profession or occupation, in my opinion, because we have so much fun spending so much money that belongs to other people. Sometimes we use it to buy toys and we even get to play with them if we’re lucky.  Most of the time, we do it to make the world a better place.

That means, however, that we have to encourage investors to put up the money to make the engineering possible, after which people will gain real value by using the results of that investment. Obviously, investors won’t get their money back for quite some time, and only if people are willing in the end to pay enough to recoup the original investment. Sometimes the investors are private individuals or companies, sometimes governments, and sometimes communities who donate their own resources, time and effort.

And, if the engineering is done well, those same investors will have gained sufficient reward and confidence to come back and do it all over again.

So, where’s the technical problem-solving? Where is the design and optimisation, according to some the quintessential characteristics of engineering? And where is the engineering science that students spend so much time learning at university?

I argue that good engineers avoid problems rather than trying to solve them. Solving problems introduces too much uncertainty and that’s not a good thing when you’re trying to meet deadlines and budgets. And yes, engineers often do design and sometimes optimization but many engineers do neither. Design is time-intensive so it is better to adapt or even copy previous designs most of the time. Many engineers hardly do any design at all, or even optimization. However, all engineers find themselves having to deliver results to satisfy investor expectations, as best they can. If they do it well, they will spend quite a bit of their time managing investor expectations so that the investors have a realistic appreciation of what is actually possible, even though that may be rather different to what was promised at the outset.

In doing so, engineers bring real benefits for ordinary people. The example I use, described in the book, is to compare the real economic cost of safe drinking water in different situations. In Australia where I live, the real cost generally less than US$2.50 per tonne whereas in South Asia, the real cost can be US $50 – US $150 per tonne, in equivalent currency terms. Engineering is not working very well in South Asia at the moment, though with one prominent exception. Mobile telephones. With a high population density, engineers can bring the cost of calls to amazingly low levels. At the moment in Pakistan, talk time costs around US$0.05 per hour.

One of the challenging issues for many engineers is distributing the benefits of good engineering. End users have to receive good value so that they are encouraged to pay for good quality engineer and services, either directly or through their governments. At the same time, investors need to recoup their investment with a sufficient profit to encourage them to invest more money in future. Sometimes, in between, there lies a contested domain with difficult ethical decisions. What’s the right balance between benefits to end users, society at large, and the investors that contribute the funds that enable us engineers to do our work?

Of course, that only becomes a serious issue when engineering produces enough real value to argue about how it’s distributed.

So, to summarize, the essence or philosophy of engineering can be expressed like this:

Engineering is a humanitarian venture which enables ordinary people to do more with greater certainty, less effort, less material resources, less energy and minimal environmental impact: less cost in economic terms. Engineers have to present sufficiently credible predictions about technical and economic performance to persuade investors to make the resources available for us engineers to provide these benefits. This, of course, is where the engineering science comes in very useful. Once the investors make the resources available, we engineers have to deliver results that satisfy expectations sufficiently closely that the investors can make sufficient profits to encourage them to come back and do it all over again.

As I have explained in other posts on this blog, we engineers need to improve our performance in many respects. However, I think it’s useful to understand why we do engineering in the first place. That will make it easier for us to understand why improving our level of performance in delivering results that satisfy end-user and investor expectations is so important.

To understand more, read how engineers can create greater value for their clients and firms, and ultimately command higher remuneration for their efforts.


  1. It is really interesting. When I search for mechanical engineering to see what it is that they do the majority of returns is where to study and what jobs are available. It is like no one really knows what an engineer is, but they all want to be one.


  2. What is practice? Where is the concept of practice? What “We do everyday?” Isn’t the idea of “technical” doing? Aren’t technique (read technics) and practice different? What is problem solving? Does Von Neumann and Morgenstern define Engineering? Or Allan Newell and Herbert Simon? Does empiricism and pragmatism result in a realism? What about idealism and rationalism? Applied to “Engineering”? Lots to do! Where is Aristotle? Frege? Marx? Heidegger? Merleau-Ponty? Arendt? Kotarbinski? Lobkowicz? Habermas? Nyirig & Smith? And especially Bourdieu? Goldman? Lawyers have looked at “practice” (Nomos XXXVII, 1995). Music teachers have looked at praxeology. Who else? Sorry, not Engineers. Once again, lots to do!


    • You’re right: this is a philosophical question. But it is also a practical question when an engineer says (as many engineers do) “I hardly ever do any real engineering”. We know that people are more motivated to perform work that they perceive as aligning with their identity. Since many engineers see technical work as aligned with their identity (real engineering) and other work (for example procurement, checking, inspections, reviews, maintenance) does not align well. Therefore, as psychology theories predict, these critical aspects of engineers’ work are relegated to secondary priority, and (as our research has shown) tend to be skipped entirely, resulting in considerable loss of value later. When engineering projects fail, resulting in billions of losses, a routine occurrence unfortunately, engineers’ reputations suffer and pensioners (as indirect investors) lose out. In the third world, for example in piped water utilities, lack of performance is an advancing tragedy causing stunting of hundreds of millions of children. And our research shows clearly that these failures are linked with engineers’ identity perceptions…. which can be changed.


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