Can Indian engineering regain its former shine?

India has produced some of the world’s greatest engineers and scientists and graduates hundreds of thousands of engineers annually. Mughal Indian civil engineering led the world 500 years ago. Therefore, today’s relatively slow progress towards a modern, sustainable, industrialized society is puzzling. India’s national productivity, along with many other low-income countries, lags advanced economies like USA, Japan, and Europe by a factor of about 5, a gap that has hardly changed in many decades.

Recent reports blame the poor quality teaching in engineering colleges, and at the same time conflate information technology and engineering. Indian colleges produce unemployable graduates, they allege.

Recent research has helped show that even with the best teaching and curriculum in the world, Indian engineering colleges would still produce vast numbers of unemployable graduates.

Field observation studies have revealed how even the best educated engineering graduates can find themselves almost completely unprepared for Indian engineering workplaces. Many graduates work as programmers, earning more than they can as engineers. An economist would conclude they create more value by coding, indicated by higher pay, than as engineers, jobs for which they are supposed to have been educated.

While researching engineering practices in Australia, India and Pakistan over the last two decades I discovered several explanations for difficulties faced by engineers in low-income countries. Social culture nurtures complex inhibitions that can make critical knowledge sharing and technical collaboration much more difficult than in advanced countries. Relatively few knowledgeable sales engineers represent specialized suppliers so extensive workplace education opportunities they offer are out of reach in low-income countries. Misunderstandings on finance can drive inappropriate decisions, and we found that few firms trust engineers enough to provide accurate financial information. Hence low productivity in engineering enterprises leads to high real costs for services such as construction, manufacturing, electricity and safe drinking water compared with more advanced countries (for equivalent service and product quality).

Safe drinking water costs USD 50 – 100 per 1,000 litres across South Asia compared with USD 3 in Australia, including the economic cost of unpaid labour by women and children. Hence the recent announcement by PM Modi calling for engineers and startup companies to create new technologies to provide affordable safe drinking water services for everyone in India.

Research in engineering workplaces has shown how collaborative practices such as technical coordination, inspections and negotiations dominate the daily work of engineers, yet these practices are seldom even mentioned in engineering schools today, anywhere. Traditional assessment practices may be rewarding individual performance by students, and implicitly devaluing collaborative performances, as well as oral communication and reading which are essential for collaboration.

Even if these limitations could be overcome, sub-continental culture infiltrates awkwardly with technical rationality. Here is an account of one engineer’s effort to understand:

She had to negotiate a labyrinth of plots constituted by rumours, illicit acts, and transgressive collaborations in order to enact or exert her own agendas of personal survival, responsibility to her workers and colleagues, and a wider official accountability.

Young engineers might be more capable working with these realities if they could develop insights on human behaviour that today come from social science courses like anthropology.

However, such fundamental education changes will take decades, perhaps longer.

More immediate improvements might be possible by focusing on the transition from education to work.

One place to start could be a more appropriate definition of engineering:

Engineers are people with technical knowledge and foresight who conceive, plan and organise delivery, operation and sustainment of man-made objects, processes and systems that enable productivity improvements so people can do more with less effort, time, materials, energy, uncertainty, health risk and environmental disturbances.

I discovered a tiny number of Indian and Pakistan engineers who had learned for themselves how to nurture world-class engineering performance in local firms. India could be transformed if every young engineer could learn from their efforts. My next book, an introduction to engineering practice for students, graduates and early career engineers, will explain some of the insights developed by these experts.  

Photo credit: Martin Jernberg – unsplash.com

How important is STEM education?

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.

Read more: I argue that STEM is not the most important priority

Webinar: Engineering and the UN Sustainable Development Goals

The productivity difference or relative wealth gap between rich and poor countries has hardly shifted in decades. I will explain why neglecting engineering as a critical input has undermined efforts to close this gap.

Engineering educators have inadvertently contributed to this failure.

New research results point to solutions that could empower engineers to deliver long anticipated social and economic development in countries like India, Indonesia, Nigeria and China.

I will explain why implementing the global UN Sustainable Development goals like halting CO2 emissions requires these transformations in engineering and engineering education.

Wednesday, September 25 at 8 pm West Australian time; 5:30 pm India Standard Time; 12 pm GMT; 8 am US EDT.

Here is the recording: http://www.ifees.net/engineering-unsdgs/

(Photo credit: Bill Wegener at unsplash.com)

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30-Second Engineering: the book is in print at last

A new way to understand engineers and engineering.

A big thank you to all the contributors: without their efforts as well, it would not have been possible.

Andrew McVeigh, Colin Brown, Donglu Shi, Doug Cooper, George Catalano, Gong Ke, Hung Nguyen, James Trevelyan, Jan Hayes, Jenn Stroud Rossman, John Blake, John Krupczak, Jonathon Scott, Jorge Spitalnik, Julia Lamborn, Kate Disney, Marlene Kanga, Matt Smith, Neill Stansbury, Paul Newman, Paul Shearing, Raj Kurup, Roger Hadgraft, Roma Agrawal, Sally Male, Sean Moran, Tim Sercombe, Tomás A. Sancho, Veena Sahajwalla.

Also thanks to Katie Crous, the copy editor, Elizabeth Clinton, and Kate Shanahan and their colleagues at Quarto Press.

The book goes on sale in four languages in October: English, Spanish, French and German.  Hopefully more will follow.

Australian Election Surprise

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.

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Engineering Value Creation

Before reading this, please see the post of December 7, 2017, where I have released a comprehensive guide for engineers, students and educators on value creation in engineering enterprises…..

In my last post, I wrote a brief explanation about value and value creation, noting that “value” has many different meanings.

In this post I will summarize what Bill Williams and I think is a new theory of engineering value creation, the subject of my address to the International Conference on Engineering Education Research (iCEER 2016) in Sydney on November 24.

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Why an engineering project can fail (1)

In this series of posts, I am going to show how engineering underpins the world economy more than we think, and how we can improve our engineering performances by changing the way we think about engineering.  The last post was bad news for us engineers.  The good news is that we can all gain by improving our engineering performances.  However, to turn our performance around, we first need to understand what’s not working.

Companies like IPA Global have answers based on statistical analysis, and have provided these answers for several years.  They will tell you which factors are statistically correlated with successful projects, as Ed Merrow has written in his book.  However, even the projects they interact with are getting worse, and there are many more projects that they don’t assess, such as government engineering projects.  Political constraints with these projects usually rule out closing down a failing project: unemployment is often a bigger issue than a failed project for government sponsors.

Clearly there are other factors at work here.  The fundamental difficulty with statistical correlations is that they cannot provide causes.  Try this example.  My hair grows every day and Halley’s comet is moving further from the sun every day.  But that does not mean that my hair will get shorter when Halley’s comet comes back towards the sun.  Statistical correlations can tell you which factors are correlated with project outcomes, but these associations cannot tell us much about the causes of project failures or how to make improvements.

We have to turn to different kinds of research to find the underlying causes for engineering project failures.  The qualitative ethnographic research we do with engineers can help identify potential causes that statistical correlations miss.

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A Bright Energy Future for Pakistan

Despite current on-going energy shortages and load shedding, Pakistan has energy wealth that could be unlocked just by thinking differently about electricity distribution.

Electricity distribution

Electricity distribution systems are large engineering enterprises (photo from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_power_transmission)

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)

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Back from Pakistan, UAE, Iran and New Zealand

Some of you may have wondered why there has been a little gap in my blog posts.  I have been pre-occupied with visits to several countries.

My other major project, Close Comfort has developed very quickly with keen anticipation particularly in Pakistan where electricity supplies are subject to frequent interruptions due to load shedding.  Pakistan’s electricity grid is struggling to keep up with demand for air conditioning, and I hope to be able to offer a sustainable solution, as explained in Chapter 13 of the book. Continue reading