Pakistan is never boring

March 15, 2023

Feature image shows the M2 Peshawar – Lahore motorway traversing the 800 metre high Salt Range near the Jhelum river.

Pakistan is never a boring place to visit. Some friends ask, “are you going to be safe?” others don’t ask directly. Most reports reaching people outside tell of terrorist threats, riots or politically inspired assassinations. For me, the main threats are microbiological terrorists: bacteria and viruses in water or food.

We are drawn here for family, stunning scenery and friendly people. Yet there is much more to draw your attention here because Pakistan is in turmoil – political and economic, social and even environmental.

Pakistan is just one of many countries with fragile economies that have cracked and may break from the consequences of US inflation and the Ukraine conflict.

For me, Pakistan is the starting point of my research on engineers. So many migrate and succeed in Australia, North America and Europe. Yet, in their home country, they struggle to deliver goods and services we take for granted in high-income countries, like water and sanitation, the most fundamental engineered services. Why? That’s a question that has preoccupied me for twenty years.

Safe drinking water costs far more than in Australia, the driest continent. It has to be carried because the pipes that deliver water for an hour or two now and again are irretrievably contaminated with sewage that seeps in through cracks and half-repaired joints. Cities like Lahore no longer have working sewerage treatment plants. Missing or broken sewer manhole covers pockmark terrain between roads and buildings. One steps precariously between live cables emerging from the dust and coiling to knee height from pylons that resemble tropical creepers more than electricity poles. Despite the best efforts from dedicated engineers and technicians, the engineered urban environment is crumbling.

Now, as I write, the weather is gorgeous. Spring days bring refreshing nights and balmy daytime sunshine with temperatures in the mid-twenties. Electricity, at least in cities, is on 24/7 because residential demand is minimal and power-hungry factories have closed down, waiting for essential supplies held at Karachi docks because the State Bank has insufficient dollars for importers to open their letters of credit. The rupee plunged in value ever further day by day. One week it collapsed from 226 to 276 to the US dollar, then bounced back and ended up at 283 by the time we left. Shehbaz Sharif, the prime minister, takes orders from his elder brother relaxing in London, and the finance minister seems to rely more on religious invocations than economists for advice. Imran Khan, whom they deposed last year, issues daily rants but offers few clues on how his team would fix the economic mess.

It seems that everyone blames politicians for Pakistan’s problems, labelling them as corrupt, self-serving liars, thieves (“Chor, chor, chor!). Pakistan is also awash with development economists only too ready to offer prescriptions that have hardly moved the dial in 50 years of trying.
Michael Krugman’s famous 1990 dictum “productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything. A country’s ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker.” There are four ways to do that:

i) Improve education to lift skill levels – that needs finance, human resources (teachers) and water, food, shelter and clothing for students while they are being educated;

ii) Improve organizations, pay and working conditions to improve worker motivation – that needs finance and human resources, just as education does;

iii) Improve health, well-being, to improve physical, emotional and mental capacity for work; and

iii) Improve tools and mechanization – that needs action by engineers. Since prehistory, engineers have delivered artefacts that enable people to do more with less time, effort, material resources, energy, health risks, environmental disturbances and uncertainty, in other words enabling other people to be more productive.

I see solutions lying in the hands of engineers, but they need new knowledge and insights to take action. The electricity network needs a completely fresh approach (part 1, part 2). Most engineers in Pakistan don’t yet see themselves as having agency, the freedom to take action, but maybe we can change that a little…

There’s a complex set of human socio-cultural issues here, with a measure of fallacies, myths, and knowledge gaps. Over the next few posts I will try and explain what I have learned over 20 years, and I would love your feedback to see if it makes sense to you.

Subscribe to make sure you receive the next post.

Beyond Competencies

Is it possible that much of the engineering education research community, myself included, has misunderstood the notion of competency? With many others, I think, I was unaware of literature drawing attention to some of the mistakes that can easily be made when talking about competency. I conclude by suggesting a way forward, beyond ‘competencies’.

How did I reach this position?

Continue reading (15 mins)

What we know, and mostly don’t know about engineering practices

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.

Read the Script of the presentation (30 mins)

A Big Question

How are we going to adapt engineering education to prepare coming generations of engineers for climate warming and the need to protect people and infrastructure? How can we prepare them to re-engineer almost our entire civilisation to eliminate greenhouse and other harmful emissions in 25 years?

As you would know, I often write about engineers and engineering, and education issues. However, I have usually stopped short of specific recommendations, relying on my books and articles to convey ideas that educators can use.

Next week I am speaking at a panel discussion at Engineers Australia Perth on Wednesday March 31, 5:30 – 8pm. Register here to join in the discussion and contribute your ideas, or if you cannot join us then, reply to this post.

Continue reading

Feeling Highly Honoured

Last Monday evening, on International Women’s Day and Begum Sarfraz Iqbal’s birthday (Samina’s mother)… if ever there was a role model for women Samina’s mother was one of them)… I was honoured by The University of Western Australia with a Chancellor’s Medal.

Thank you, Ayman Haydar, for this video of the citation by Prof. Amit Chakma, Vice Chancellor, himself an engineer and his first graduation ceremony since taking on the role last year. It was also a privilege to receive the honour in front of colleagues from the engineering school and a couple of hundred graduating engineers. One of my former students gave the occasional address: it was reassuring to feel that such a confident young woman had learned something from my teaching.

Productivity isn’t everything, but…

No wonder Trump can easily still command rustbelt supporters. Stagnation in the US manufacturing industry is killing prospects for wage rises. Bureau of Labor Statistics data released two weeks ago shows that while productivity increased by about 3% annually from the 1980s till 2007, annual growth since has been only 0.4%. Most of that, and more, is needed for sustainability improvements like changing to clean energy.

Labor productivity depends on engineered tools, machines and materials, so engineers are the key people to restart productivity growth. While economics and labor saving solutions were the priority for engineers in the 1950s, as evidenced by the ASEE Grinter report, now that seems to have been forgotten. Our research is revealing that today’s engineers have limited understanding on how to generate commercial value.

Students need to learn the fundamental purpose of engineering. Distilled from our research on hundreds of engineers in several countries, that purpose is to enable people to be more productive.

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

Sustainability depends on similar improvements.

As Paul Krugman wrote more than 30 years ago,

“Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything. A country’s ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker.”

Economists are hoping that the digital economy will restore productivity growth. It might. But in a world where information supply is exponentially increasing, its value must be exponentially decreasing.

Continue reading

New book “Learning Engineering Practice”

If you are a member of Engineers Australia you can order with a 30% discount here. If you’re not a member of Engineers Australia, email me for a discount voucher.

Why buy this book?

Cover design for Learning Engineering Practice

If you’re a student or recent graduate, the book will help you get ahead in the search for paid employment, and the more you work at it, the more attractive you will be for employers.

If you’re an early career engineer, this book will help you navigate the complexities and frustrations of engineering workplaces, and get your career advancing more rapidly. You will soon be far more valuable for your enterprise. As one recent reader wrote “if only I had access to this book earlier in my career I could have avoided so many difficulties”.

Lots of companies struggle with on-boarding graduate and early career engineers – this book will help them and their supervisors. They may not hit the ground running, but they soon will be, and generating greater value for their employers.

Want to know more?

Here is the contents summary.

How is the book different from “The Making of an Expert Engineer”?

a) About one fifth the price (paperback), and one third the length;

b) Short, easy to read chapters for students and early-career engineers;

c) Includes guidance on commercial and social value generation that came from more recent research;

d) Includes a detailed curriculum and performance checklist for early career workplace learning;

e) Updated material on sustainability and work in low-income countries.

Naturally, as an introductory book, there are many references to “The Making of an Expert Engineer” for a more advanced treatment of topics such as engineering financial decision-making.

Has Engineering Divorced?

I came across this report on the economic contributions of engineering prepared by PWC for Engineering New Zealand. In preparing the report, PWC and Engineering New Zealand assembled about 20 senior engineers from a representative sample of industries and asked them to write a brief description of engineering.


Here’s a word cloud summarising the result.

Now, what’s gone missing?

Remember that this was an exercise in assessing the economic significance of engineering in New Zealand…

Still wondering?

Read more to see what I think is missing

Blinded by Tech?

These days, apparently, “tech” is ubiquitous.

Technology will save us?

Yet technology, the word, now means much less than it used to: it has been slimmed down to mean mobile phones, apps and gadgets. I asked a few friends: they said tech means an electrical gadget like a phone. Is an electric toaster technology? Oh no, they said, it’s too simple, too ancient. So “tech” has to be complex? “Ah, yes!”

Read to learn more

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.

Continue reading