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

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.

Read more to understand how you can help

Engineering Heroes Podcast

I was honoured to invited to speak at the World Engineering Convention in Melbourne next Friday morning at 9 am. Dom and Mel Gioia interviewed me for their Engineering Heroes Podcast series. I hope it starts some interesting discussions around engineering communities in Australia and elsewhere. I launched into the interview with the ideas I was planning to talk about next Friday. So you can hear a preview here…

Well, you could have done… But I changed my mind.

I am going to take a different approach, more relevant to engineering globally, and with sustainability in mind. So the podcast is a kind of preview. Please join me next Friday in Melbourne to hear a different take on this. How culture and value perceptions influence engineering practice, and how we could transform our world.

Here’s the podcast link.

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.

Continue reading

How can engineers help eliminate poverty?

Nobel prizewinning economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote in his 2005 book “The End of Poverty” how extreme poverty can be eliminated by implementing six priority actions (Ch12, p234-5):

1) Agricultural inputs (e.g. fertilizer, water harvesting, irrigation) and produce storage, including roads and transport for people and materials;

2) Investment in basic health: clinics, medicines;

3) Investment in education;

4) Power, transport and communication services;

5) Safe drinking water and sanitation (without which (2) is ineffective).

Although Sachs did not allude to this, we can see that all require effective engineering, either directly, or indirectly by providing productivity improvements that enable spare human capacity to be available for education, healthcare and infrastructure investment.

If you look at Pakistan, a middle of the road low income country, around half the workforce is needed just to supply enough food and water for everyone. In Australia, less than 2% of the workforce is needed, and they produce a substantial surplus for food exports. It’s engineering, successful engineering, that makes the difference. That of course relies on lots of other things as well – education, effective means to enforce contracts – law and government regulation, health care and so many others. Once engineers have lifted human productivity, there are people available to provide these other support services. That’s what’s missing in low income countries.

I think there’s no better illustration than the real economic cost of safe drinking water. In Pakistan, the cost (including the indirect cost of unpaid female labour) typically ranges between US$50 and $150 per tonne. In Australia it’s about $2 per tonne. I explain why in my book and my 2012 TED talk. In other words, because we have not enabled engineering to work so well in Pakistan, the poorest people have to pay far more for water ( and all the other essentials for life ) than wealthy Australians.  There are many contributing issues here.

There are wonderful social and commercial opportunities for engineers who set out to fix this and help eliminate poverty. They can start by recognising the economic needs and by devising affordable mass-market solutions. The next step is to provide a credible financial case for investors, along with the reputation for delivering on promises. This last aspect is probably the most difficult: engineers currently have an appalling reputation in both government and commercial investment circles. That’s why it’s best to take small steps, one at a time, and gradually build the reputation needed to achieve results on a grand scale.

In the book I explain some of the insights gained by truly expert engineers. You can learn how they think and how they deliver for their organisations. In doing so, they earn 2 – 5 times as much as other engineers because their organisations recognise the value they contribute.

You can do that too and become a real contributor to the Global Citizen Project. As an engineer, you can do much more than adding to the noise.  I hope you take up this challenge. If you do, please write and tell me about what you have been able to achieve.