From a purely engineering perspective, all real world problems are solvable. Nobody would choose to be a design engineer unless they deeply believed in their own ability to solve problems through creativity and a deliberate methodology – identify the problem, analyse it, build a prototype, test it, iterate, deliver the solution.
In the real world, of course, the challenges are much more difficult. Social, political and economic considerations prevail, often ruling out the elegant solutions that an engineering approach would suggest.
Let me give you an example: climate change. The problem is clear: global temperatures are rising, ice sheets are melting and oceans are acidifying. The analysis is clear: human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels for energy, are leading to rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and are driving the problem. The imperative is clear: cut emissions – and do it quickly.
The pure engineering solution would involve massive installations of solar and wind, backed up by natural gas turbines, hydrogen storage, pumped hydro storage and battery storage to handle the intermittency, and investment in new hydroelectric and nuclear electricity generation.
“The challenge for engineers when it comes to these large-scale, socially complex issues is to work closely with colleagues across the humanities and social sciences to build solutions that communities can and will take forward.”
Once the existing electricity supply is decarbonised, the amount of low emissions electricity generated would be doubled or tripled so that liquid fossil fuels for transport and natural gas for heating could be rapidly replaced by low emissions electricity.
If only human affairs were so straightforward!
The challenge for engineers when it comes to these large-scale, socially complex issues is to work closely with colleagues across the humanities and social sciences to build solutions that communities can and will take forward.
But not all challenges are as wicked as climate change. The engineering method delivers handsomely in the corporate world, most often in collaboration with marketing, psychology and customer support systems. Smartphones, automobiles, improved building technologies and advanced materials are just some of the myriad examples.
The engineering method is also very applicable to organisational management. The evidence based, non-ideological problem solving approach of engineering can serve leaders from the shop floor to the corporate board.
When it comes to politics, in some countries (such as Germany) engineers are highly valued. But in Australia, they’re far less visible. I don’t know why that is so, but perhaps we need to be teaching charisma as a graduate attribute in Australian engineering faculties.
At the very least, we should be making crystal clear to our engineering students their opportunity to contribute to society outside of their profession.
Australia’s Chief Scientist
Read next: Dr Anna Lavelle, CEO and Executive Director of AusBiotech on Innovation in Australian life sciences.
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