This is the script for my REES-AAEE-2021 Keynote. The video is here, and the powerpoint slides are available on request if you would like to use them for education purposes.
For a sustainable future, we need large productivity improvements. Engineers are critical contributors, but we need deeper understandings of engineering practices and how education influences them to make the necessary improvements. Without this, education reform arguments are fragile at best.
I rarely stay up late to watch serious TV. However, this announcement, three years in the making, was something that I just couldn’t miss.
At Close Comfort, we sincerely congratulate the Global Cooling Prize 2021 winners along with all the judges and participating teams! Everyone involved in the Prize helped develop new green technologies that can cool people around the world without warming or harming our planet.
I am so thankful I don’t have to work all the time in an air-conditioned office building. Especially since Covid-19, our entire Close Comfort team works part of the time at home. We’re happier and feel healthier too. Of course, I have a Close Comfort personal air conditioner with me. Our team members each have at least one at home as well. Lee Kuan Yew, honoured as Singapore’s founding father, loved to tell everyone how air conditioning enabled today’s Singapore by providing a comfortable working and sleeping environment. However, there’s a dark side that comes with 20th-century air conditioning systems. It is well established that people who live most of the time in constant temperature air-conditioned buildings lose their natural thermal acclimatization. As a result, they only feel comfortable at about 23 °C. Recently I hailed a Singapore cab and climbed into the shiny black refrigerator on wheels, feeling so glad I remembered to bring a cardigan tied around my shoulders. The driver exclaimed, “Ah, it’s so hot today, la!” “What’s the temperature?” I asked. “33, it’s really hot, la”. “But, yesterday it was 32”. “Yeah, 33, it’s so hot today, la!”
It’s summer (but it’s not me in the photo): the magnetic needle inside my old-fashioned max-min mercury thermometer shows the temperature on my veranda reached 47°C recently. Close Comfort, an old PC8 model made in 2015 improved with the latest compact focus enhancer. It sits at the end of my bed each night and my Igloo tent is in the wardrobe should I need it. I move it to my study if I’m working from home.
As the inventor, it’s nice to be able to tell you that I use it practically all the time I need cooling.
It’s not just that I invented it. Or the knowledge that even one small tree absorbs more CO2 than is created at the power station by the electricity that it uses. Even less CO2 with solar electricity.
I have even noticed that I adapt to the heat more easily when using Close Comfort, so I don’t have use it all the time. There is evidence emerging from physiological studies that might support this perception. It’s good because my wife uses it too in her study: the kitchen where she just has to reach across to make herself cups of tea.
Recent reports have highlighted Australia’s declining results in PISA testing of maths, science and reading capabilities of children. Some in particular have drawn attention to Australia’s relatively weak performance compared with China and Singapore. I am unsure what this means. Should we invest more in maths and science education?
The Singaporean government is making it harder for foreigners to work there. International company people I meet in Singapore complain that young Singaporeans cannot perform as well as foreigners and demand too much pay, and the government is trying to force companies to employ more locals.
How often do hear people saying we need better leaders?
We blame our slow responses to climate change on populist leaders. Thanks in part to populist leaders, women still face the same barriers as they did two or three decades ago. We are consuming earth’s irreplaceable resources, mineral and biological, far too fast to ensure future generations share the lifestyle we have today. We can change… but we need good leaders!
We hear time and again how people are losing their trust in leaders, politicians, institutions, and journalists. Where, they ask, are the Roosevelts, Kennedys, Churchills, Ghandis, and Mandelas who could lead us through these challenges?
We have run out of time to sit and wait for a phalanx of talented and inspiring leaders to emerge and rescue us.
I think we can make good leaders emerge much sooner. Universities could do that, but they need some new ideas.
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.
Electricity supply is capital intensive engineering. Pakistan built the existing electricity supply network with the help of large loans on favourable terms from the World Bank and other international institutions.
In addition, Pakistan has benefited from the generosity of Saudi Arabia in providing low-cost fuel.
Pakistan has reaped the benefits of large hydroelectric generating plants at Mangla, Tarbela and other dams: they generate electricity with no ongoing fuel costs.
As fuel and capital borrowing costs rose for Pakistan in the last 20 years, and the proportion of cheap hydro power reduced, Pakistan governments shielded people from the real cost of electricity generation with generous subsidies but these cannot continue.
Another factor that frustrates efforts to find energy solutions is the high cost of engineering in Pakistan. Through research we have identified many factors that Pakistan engineers struggle to overcome, such as the deep social divides that inhibit effective collaboration and knowledge sharing between engineers, investors and labour. Given the same requirements for product availability and service quality, the cost is almost invariably higher in Pakistan than in industrialised economies like Europe and the USA. Just as an example, when indirect costs are taken into account, the cost of safe drinking water ranges from US$50 to $150 per tonne in Pakistan while the cost in Australia, the driest continent, is US$3 per tonne.
(This is an updated and extended version of an article published in The News, Pakistan, 31st May 2013)
The Paris climate change agreement has received rather more praise than detailed explanations. Public discussion during the meeting seemed remarkably muted, perhaps for fear of reawakening ghosts of acrimonious disagreement from Copenhagen, 6 years earlier. I was in Paris on leave for the last few days of the meeting and far more media attention focused on European immigration, Syrian refugees, and the widely expected resurgence of the far-right National Front in local elections. The National Front lost, the Paris agreement was applauded: everyone sighed with relief and switched attention to Christmas and Star Wars 8. Climate Change quickly vanished as exhausted delegations left Paris.
Galleries Lafayette had this stunning Christmas play on Star Wars among
elaborately decorated windows to draw crowds of shoppers.
I believe that the Paris Agreement will soon re-emerge as one of the most significant developments influencing engineering in this century. It may not have received much media attention yet, but it demands close attention from all of us.
This agreement places enormous responsibilities on us as engineers and the world’s expectations are daunting. Continue reading →
In my last piece I pointed out some of the challenges for engineers in Pakistan. Yet each of those challenges is an opportunity for any engineer who is prepared to take advantage of them. Yes, water and power are far too expensive. However, reliably supplying water and power at a lower cost represents a huge commercial opportunity because ordinary people will happily pay for a high quality service that provides real economic value over the alternatives. Given that water is the equivalent of US$50-$150 per tonne today, supplying safe drinking water at $10 per tonne is a huge improvement.
Here’s an example, my own personal invention, mentioned in the book (Ch13). Air conditioning is unaffordable for the vast majority of Pakistan people because most Pakistan buildings are not insulated. Conventional air conditioning consumes large amounts of electricity. Too many people are using conventional air conditioners, leading to electricity load shedding. Continuous air conditioning requires a generator and the electricity cost (with fuel) for a typical room air conditioner is about 20,000 Rs or US$190 for one month.
This technology can provide similar comfort, running continuously through load shedding on a UPS, for about 1,200 Rs or US$12 monthly electricity cost which is much more affordable. The first production units will be on sale in Islamabad and Lahore in a couple of months time.
Challenges like climate change also represent a huge opportunity for engineers. Engineers can do more than almost any other occupational group, and can earn high rewards from grateful people at the same time.