The Audacity of Engineering

February 1st, 2009

At the time of this writing (mid-November), it appears that significant progress has been made toward avoiding a global financial collapse and that we now have a good chance of avoiding that fate. Unfortunately, it is now clear that, no matter how the credit markets fare, there will be a recession. Even after the world economy picks up again, the world will certainly face an era of greater scarcity.

This editor cannot but notice the stark contrast between the motivations of the folks in the investment banking industry, whose machinations have contributed mightily to the situation we are now in, and that of most of the engineers I have met in my career.

At their best, the investment bankers of the world have moved capital across borders to fund worthy enterprises that have competent managers, a good business plan, and a market for their goods or services.

At their worst, and we have had many examples of that in recent months, they have fueled a speculative bubble that has led to the mass destruction of wealth. The recent asset bubble involved financial instruments promoted by firms with some of the most hallowed names on Wall Street and were assured to be of high quality by the credit rating agencies, that were supposed to represent the pinnacle of financial prudence.

This investment banking industry, awash with money, has attracted many of the brightest graduates of the top universities in the US for some time. Without a doubt the easy access to wealth, power, and prestige was an important attraction for this career choice.

Fine. So what does all this have to do with engineering?

It’s been my observation that engineers are people who revel in the process of creating things of lasting value and improving them. They share a joy from making things more efficient. In final analysis, they delight from the pursuit of the greater good rather than the greater fool, unlike our finance industry. It seems to me that, by and large, their career choice has been driven more by the intrinsic satisfaction of doing engineering than by seeing it as a means to an end.

One of the outcomes of the recent US presidential election is the widely shared perception that the time of easy money is over and we must work collaboratively and intelligently toward the common good.

In the best of worlds, humanity will have learned a lesson from this recent experience and will rethink that motivation driving this past bubble that led people to pursue their immediate and narrow self-interest. The Japanese statistician and engineer, Genichi Taguchi, formulated a principal that products and processes should be designed to minimize their cost to society. Imagine how world industry would be transformed if this principle were widely put into practice. (I’m not trying to sound like John Lennon here, really!)

Factories the world over would be non-polluting. Energy efficiency in manufacturing, homes, and transportation would be vigorously pursued. The use of hydrocarbons for fuel would be dramatically curtailed. Products would be designed to minimize the consumption of scarce natural resources and to maximize resource recovery at the end of their useful life. A premium would be placed on doing things smarter, through better engineering applied to all aspects of production. The investment in engineering talent would be easily paid for by the societal savings.

Admittedly, this vision does sound utopian. (It’s ironic that the very word “utopia” comes from the Greek meaning “no place.” So, by definition it’s not realizable.) However, significant progress could be achieved if the world pursued these goals with half of the vigor that went into chasing the chimera of instant wealth.

Such a world would represent the core values of engineering, but at a large societal level. That’s certainly an audacious thought, isn’t it?

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