Government, industry and educators: get fit for the future of engineering

Government, industry and educators - get fit for the future of engineering

Changes in engineering technology coupled with shifting commercial and social demands is creating major risks and opportunities for the business community. Similarly, policy makers, industry bodies and educators are not immune. While some of the most profound consequences may not impact for several years, the time required to achieve institutional and organisational change demands action is taken today.

Policy makers mustn’t impede public value creation

Entirely different capabilities and business models are emerging for delivery of engineered outcomes. Consulting and design services are being outsourced, crowd-sourced and automated, construction is starting to look more like manufacturing, and operations can be more data intense, integrated and personalised. Public policy makers and regulators can’t assume that traditional planning, financing, procurement and delivery models will remain fit for purpose or deliver maximum public value.

The emergent ways of working not only alter how public infrastructure and services are delivered, but also what can be delivered. Collaborative (multi-stakeholder) design practices influence who’s engaged, improve the application of information, resources and authority, and enhance the inventiveness of and support for solutions. Policy makers need to catch up with these shifts, with a stronger focus on social outcomes (versus outputs) and a heightened ambition to better match the potential of collaborative action.

Of course, there’s a need to avoid being seduced by sophisticated technology. It has to work for society, not the other way around. High-tech solutions have their place, but simpler, more elegant engineering solutions may often be more cost effective, durable and robust [1]. Whatever solutions are adopted, it’s likely that governments will need to ensure their service providers enable greater inter-operability within and across service systems and infrastructure.

Ultimately, foreseeable changes in the practice and delivery of engineered solutions creates risk, complexity and uncertainty, at least in the transitionary phase. Some existing infrastructure assets and services could become outdated and uneconomic. Difficult decisions will need to be made, and no one expert or organisation should be relied upon for a safe answer. So earlier engagement, consolidation of multiple perspectives, and prototyping of solutions ahead of time will be central functions of an effective government.

Brokering the relationships and trust to aid progress

Industry bodies like Engineers Australia have related challenges and opportunities. Remaining relevant and valuable to their membership is paramount as a generation of older engineers retire and mid and early-career engineers experience challenges not faced by the profession before.

It also means constructing a new narrative around the role and importance of engineering to prospective graduates (particularly women) who can perceive engineers as ‘wrench monkeys’. With this comes a bigger role for professional bodies in reshaping university education, ensuring universities are providing contemporary courses, skills and delivery models.

Arguably one of the more challenging yet important roles will be in thought leadership and public advocacy roles, not as a lobbyist per se but a trustworthy voice. Technology and business model challenges have the potential to generate much improved social outcomes. Yet the benefits risk being unequally distributed, exacerbating current trends of inequity in economic and social participation. Ethical and moral issues will grow in importance, alongside the needs of public governors, business leaders and communities more generally for good advice on plausible, constructive development pathways.

Educators must invest in transition and renewal

As technology and artificial intelligence colonises rule-based analysis and more sophisticated tasks (like detailed engineering design), educators must determine what form of engineering education makes sense. It’s not just a question of technical knowledge but also the skills to succeed in a globalised work force. In research and product development, deep engineering skills will remain valuable. But in industry and consulting, business problem solving, design innovation and collaboration [2] are likely to be more important. Perhaps a bifurcation in engineering education will occur?

Engaging younger talent and creating more rounded engineers could be supported by bringing real-life case studies, social challenges and problem solving to the forefront of courses. Engineers and other professions are witnessing a blurring of roles particularly in consulting, but also in other organisations (like capital asset investors) that are recruiting engineers into their changing business models.

Ultimately, skills to work intimately with other professions, to think deeply and continue learning will be invaluable to many engineers facing the commoditisation of traditional tasks.

Of course this loop of interest and responsibility must close. Policy makers must actively support well-funded, high quality education, because it generates the intellectual capital, job security and resulting tax revenue the nation requires.

Innergise and beatonlive are collaborating to deliver a cutting-edge conference for executives and directors on engineering and the fourth industrial revolution. Further information on partners, speakers, and registration details are available here.

[1] N.S. Fleming (2015) Transformative Port Design, Case Study at Innergise Pty Ltd.

[2] N.S. Fleming (2016) The missing key: unlocking high value infrastructure by design, Innergise Pty Ltd, Melbourne.