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. Continue reading