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Sunday, 6 April 2014

Engineering – An Example of an Occupation in Need of Behavioural Change

Engineering is very important to society given that most of that which we rely upon in the modern world results from engineering endeavour. But there is another side to engineering, which, on the whole, many engineers do not want to discuss. For, not only are engineers partly responsible for all those things that make life comfortable, but also all the bad things that are destroying our world. And yet many engineers are seemingly blind to this fact, and also unwilling to engage in the intellectual development that would move them forward. They are literally, trapped in the past. They have become like Prometheus, chained to a rock, and the rock and the chains are invisible to most of them, thus when they read what is written here, not only will most of them not agree, but will do so with an emotion that should serve as a warning.

It is important therefore to ask: if the occupation of engineering is fit for purpose, given the circumstances that humanity faces in the early 21st century? There are also many other important questions to consider: What needs to be done to improve the standing of engineers in society? Are there some areas of activities where engineers should not be allowed to practice without special knowledge, competencies and certification? Is the current system of registration for Chartered Engineering status in need of major revision? How can standards be raised so that excellence rises above mediocrity? Is there a need for regulation founded in law?

The world has changed significantly since the 18th and 19th centuries, but apart from working with new technologies, it seems that minds have not moved on. Engineers tend to handle modern challenges and 21st century technologies, and interact with an increasingly technologically literate society, on the basis of 18th century beliefs and values. Increasingly many engineers are out of step with society. It is not therefore surprising that they are often held in such low regard, not only by other professions, but by society at large.

It is time for engineers to step into the 21st century, and to begin to reform themselves, to change their culture, to raise standards, to start behaving as true professionals rather than representatives of employers, and, above all, to stop engaging in collective delusions.

And the route to change starts by engineers accepting and acknowledging, and being open about, their failings. This will not happen however, as long as the Engineering Institutions continue to behave as though there is nothing wrong with engineering. Engineering Institutions in the UK are increasingly succumbing to the modern disease of style over substance and are over emphasising the importance of engineers and demonstrating a pride in their achievements that does not reflect the reality of the damage that engineers have also caused. These Institutions lack vision, provide no leadership, and fail to offer a role model and a benchmark for behaviour, being also themselves caught-up in collective delusions. These Institutions are also full of optimism, choosing to project an image that hides the reality of an occupation that many would not want to be associated with. Furthermore, like countless individual engineers, these Institutions also subscribe to the deficit hypothesis, perceiving not engineers to be the problem, but others, who, through some deficit, are unable to see how marvellous engineers are.

Engineering Institutions in the UK also seem to struggle to fully understand their purpose and role, and fail to demonstrate any in-depth understanding that they no longer have much in the way of unique selling points, with much of what they are able to offer now available free-of-charge as a result of a networked world. As a consequence, they turn to marketing hype, using terms such as thought leadership, to cover their emptiness, and engage is the pretence of being independent, even though their alignment with vested interests is plain for all to see. And many engineers are taken-in by this nonsense; such is their unquestioning acceptance of the world. And there is a word to describe all this – and that word is hubris.

That which the Engineering Institutions will not do must therefore be done by individuals. One of the interesting features of the modern age is that formal organisations no longer hold the power that they once did. Power is shifting downwards to individuals, and it is now time to use that power. Among my blogs you will find much information about several issues that are linked to fitness for purpose. This information should help people to better understand what is wrong.  But now also it is time to start moving on to considering the foundations for a very different type of engineering that is truly a profession. And the same comments also apply to scientists and technologists as well.

How to change the behaviour of those who have acquired the values and beliefs that keep these groups chained to the rock of the past is a difficult issue. In my book Moments in Time, the central character (an engineer) in the end, realises what he must do – behave differently. But what should that different behaviour be? What is the new paradigm? During the course of 2014 I plan to discuss some aspects of this. Slowly I am edging towards explaining, but first I have more to say, so, next week I will explore matters further.

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