Culture, value perceptions shape engineering practice

{This is the plenary address I delivered last Friday at the World Engineering Convention – WEC2019. I entered the stage to loud music … a little unexpected … to help the large audience feel awake and energised at 9 am in the morning.}

Did you know…

In the UN documents detailing the Sustainable Development Goals, engineering is NOT mentioned at all?

We have to change that because engineering is crucial for implementing these goals.


Productivity improvement…. Doing everything with less, a lot less…

Less effort, less energy, less materials, less cost.

Thankyou.  I feel so honoured to be asked to speak this morning, at this meeting place cared for by our Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years.

Listen carefully, please. I need your help.

Sustainability for our human civilization, one of the main themes of this convention, means sustainability for Asia, Africa, Latin America: around 6 Bn people in less developed countries.

We need a technological transformation to achieve this, as many of you have advocated at this convention.

Here’s an example showing what is possible.

We have commercialized our extremely energy-efficient Close Comfort personal air conditioner in Australia, Indonesia, Singapore and Pakistan. It’s a tiny fridge running on just 300 Watts with a blower that cools people, not buildings. Pakistan users report energy savings exceeding 90% compared with room air conditioners where summer indoor temperatures hover around 40C day and night. Used on a large scale, our machines can meet air conditioning needs in existing residential buildings with renewable energy, and help to eliminate most air conditioning greenhouse emissions, currently a major issue in climate negotiations.

We provide comfort with less effort, materials and a lot less energy: that’s a large productivity improvement, mainly energy-efficiency. 

However, transformational technologies are not enough by themselves.  The last 6 decades have brought countless innovations…. However

Except for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, productivity across Asia, Africa and Latin America is still about one fifth of advanced economies.

Achieving UNSDGs will be a struggle, even for us in Australia. To meet these goals globally we need to improve productivity in less developed countries, including China, by at least 3 – 5 times.

We’re not economists: let me explain what this current productivity gap actually means. In simple terms, in less developed countries, on average, people need five times more effort, materials, and energy for products and services with the same quality in all respects as wealthy countries, i.e. the cost is much higher.

Safe drinking water in South Asia typically costs 15 – 30 times the cost in Australia in equivalent currency.  Real energy costs are 4 – 5 times higher and construction around 1.5 – 2.5 times higher, more in purchasing power terms.

No wonder poor countries remain poor.

People attribute wealth differences to bad luck, politicians mismanaging economies, socialism, stupidity, corruption, lack of education, and colonial exploitation.

For several decades, development economists have proposed solutions, but this gap has not shifted at all.

I think that engineers may make a difference where economists have failed.

My research produced strong evidence that many social cultures create complex inhibitions that make knowledge sharing and collaboration far more difficult. I think that helping engineers to work around these cultural inhibitions could transform engineering practice, productivity and this wealth gap, even in the least developed countries.

In all but the most labour-intensive industries, labour is a relatively small component of production cost, typically 8-12%. Material and energy costs dominate, followed by fixed costs such as machinery and land. Engineers play a pivotal role because we can strongly influence productivity and product quality.

Research has revealed engineering as a complex social activity in which specialised expertise is distributed among the participants. It’s not possible for anyone to acquire all the required knowledge and skills, so special collaboration methods are needed. We now know that engineers spend up to 80% or more of their time on these collaboration efforts, and as little as 2% on calculations and design. Therefore, cultural factors shaping knowledge sharing and interpersonal relations in a society influence engineering practice, and hence enterprise productivity and costs of its products and services.

Here is a simplified example illustrating just one culture influence. Even a young South Asian engineer acting as a production supervisor is still considered to have high social status. He listens to his manager and briefs workers on what has to be done. No questions are asked because that implies an inability to listen properly. Workers, acutely aware of their own unresolved uncertainties, know that the consequences of doing nothing are less severe than doing the wrong thing, so they patiently wait for directions, and expensive machinery lies idle in the meantime. The engineer runs from one worker to the next explaining every small action to each of them in turn. Work stops in the absence of visible supervision. When his manager asks for a progress report, the junior engineer remains silent instead of reporting production shortfalls.

Limited evidence suggests that China and Africa are similarly affected. This contributes to the low productivity we observe from macro-economic data.

These high costs seem to defy common sense, especially in the case of China. After all, we have all become accustomed to China being the world’s factory because they can undercut everyone else’s prices.

China followed other industrialized countries and has transformed itself into an economic powerhouse, no doubt. To do that, it has convinced investors to accept tiny returns, provided subsidies, and low cost material supplies for manufacturers, enabling factories to compete with low prices. However, productivity has not increased fast enough and now China faces an acute demographic problem as the one-child generation has to care for aging parents and grandparents. China needs much greater productivity improvements to avoid declining living standards and enable factories to compete without subsidies that are adding to China’s enormous debts.

Low productivity and high costs also help explain why so many aid projects have been ineffective. Aid budget allocations were insufficient to cover the higher costs.

While less developed countries face the toughest challenge, productivity growth has virtually stopped in advanced countries, and we can trace this to social culture changes that are influencing engineering practices. Again, the consequences for many are static or declining living standards, and an inability to improve sustainability.

Our research suggested several ways for engineers to boost productivity, everywhere, especially in less developed countries. 

Some ideas appeared in my book “30-Second Engineering” – a comprehensive introduction to engineers and engineering for lay people who want need to understand what we do and how we do it. It’s out now (and modestly priced).

Learning Engineering Practice

I need your help for my next book, in progress, for all novice engineers, especially in less developed countries. Engineers on whom we are all going to depend in coming decades.

It will help them …

  1. Learn that their job is to improve productivity (overlooked in engineering schools today);

  2. Learn about technical collaboration and how to work around cultural complexities that block critical knowledge sharing, enabling them to create and implement clever ideas to improve productivity;

  3. Learn how to create commercial value for their enterprises and social value for communities, generating sufficient investor confidence. Bill Williams and I recently published research that explains this.

    (Weak understanding on how engineers can generate commercial value continues to cause great frustration for employers, and especially investors. Listen to the recent podcast I did for Mel and Dom on Engineering Heroes) 

Why do I need your help?

Only we, as engineers, can resolve this issue, and it is critical. The famous economist Paul Krugman said, “productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything.”

Most economists think that engineering is, in the end, merely a set of instructions on how to assemble components to make something. If only it were that easy!

Economists dominate discussions on development. I need your help to show that engineers can deliver the productivity transformations that we need.

Here’s what I would like from you…

  1. I need you to get the word out about these discoveries.  Governments and firms, especially in less developed countries, need to know that high local costs can largely be attributed to engineering knowledge gaps.

    Note: Corruption, a common explanation for high costs, is there, yes, but as I have found, its influence is everywhere, and corruption alone cannot explain the enormous cost disadvantages I mentioned.
  • Knowledge on how engineers can improve productivity and generate investor confidence is now available. The “expert” engineers that I identified in my research had discovered this for themselves. It is not rocket science: but I am asking you all to read carefully and learn to think about engineering differently, as a culturally influenced technical and collaborative enterprise.
  • If you are employing, supervising or mentoring engineers, please register here (now closed).  Then you can help review the chapter drafts for the book I am still writing. Please try out these ideas with your engineers, and provide me with constructive feedback.

Next, Eleanor is going to tell us about information technology developments. To me that’s a nice segue, because building trust among users is critical for engineered services and products to succeed, and that’s all easily overlooked by naïve young engineers.

Mobile phone systems around the world have succeeded, even the least developed countries, because (according to our research) the information technology serves as a trust broker, almost like a bank, building trust between users, investors, operators and governments. 

This and other success stories in developing countries show that there are technologies that can circumvent many cultural inhibitions. Explanations lie in my earlier book, The Making of an Expert Engineer (chapter 13).

And now phone networks are becoming banks…

If you’re interested in reading the full paper presented in a later session, please get in touch by email (

One comment

  1. Pingback: Fixing Pakistan's economy has to start with engineers

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