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 artifical 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?




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