I attended a conference in the 1980s with 600 people in the plenary session. The speaker asked who would recommend engineering to their children. Only six hands went up: 1 per cent.
That this was an engineering conference made the result even more alarming. It may go some way to explain why today engineers make up just 9 per cent of the workforce, of which 2 per cent are female.
The need to promote STEM subjects in school is well documented, but there is something more fundamental that needs to take place.
In the latter part of the year there has been a welcome shift in political rhetoric as Turnbull seeks to “embrace” the future, yet paradoxically there are too few in my profession to create that future.
The need to promote STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths) in school is well documented, but there is something more fundamental that needs to take place: influencing people with the ability to influence those yet to choose their vocation.
Had more hands risen at that conference in the 1980s, it may have been an Australian electrical engineer who adapted GPS to create the world’s first ride-sharing business; an Australian mechanical engineer who while all those around him sought to produce faster cars, realised the potential in solar-powered cars; an Australian engineer who took government-funded touch-screen technology and adapted it for use on a mobile phone.
So the first step to embracing the future is to ensure the next generation have among them a greater proportion of Australians with the ability to create the future, solve challenges, and shape a better world.
This requires a return to the fundamentals of engineering.
The word “engineer” is derived from the Latin words ingeniare, meaning to “devise”, and ingenium, meaning “cleverness”. In short, engineers devise clever ways for scientific discovery to benefit humans.
Yet somehow engineering has lost that connection to society and humanity. It has become about “things” and not about “making things happen” to benefit people. The aqueducts of the Roman empire were not about arches and stone, but about the movement of much needed water into cities for people; the Snowy Hydro Scheme is not about 16 dams and seven major power stations, it is about the provision of water for $3 billion of agricultural produce and clean renewable energy to benefit Australians; the Sydney Opera House, which my firm Arup worked on, is not just a performance theatre, it is a reflective symbol of the tenacity, beauty and brilliance of the people who make this island the best there is.
Engineering must return to why it exists. It is not about things, it is about people. In doing so it will once more be a part of the social sciences: politics and not just physics; finance and not just construction; the law and consequences of decisions, as opposed to just providing solutions.
Some of the great engineers, George Stephenson and Laurence Hartnett, the fathers of railway and the Holden respectively, spent more than half their time with politicians and money men. They knew how the system worked because they had to – their engineering was about benefiting people. Hartnett is believed to have drafted many of the letters that he received from the Australian government, so that he could then show them to his bosses to indicate the seriousness of the government’s intent to have an “Australian” car. It was never about a car, it was about an Australian car – by the people, for the people.
Just as the “E” of engineering is at the heart of STEM, so too it must be in the heart of government. There is a minister for science, innovation and industry and a chief scientist, but where is the “E”? Where is the chief engineer? Where is the link between what science can do and the implications for humanity? There is so much talk of the “T” and “S”, yet it is the “E” that is best placed to devise clever ways science and technology may or may not benefit people.
Today we face a number of challenges: poverty and unequal wealth distribution; resource scarcity and security: water, food, energy resources; climate change and resilience; urbanisation and an ageing population.
All of these are engineering challenges.
This should be the era of the engineers determining which scientific discoveries and technological advancements can benefit humanity and must be pursued. An era of engineers able to draw the distinction between our ability to do something and whether we should do something based on a wider benefit to people.
Designing with social purpose, concentrating on projects that will make our world safer, healthier, and more resilient within financial and ecological constraints: it is time for this element of engineering to come to the fore and determine future direction.
If we focus on doing the right things well, and on being very clear as to why we are doing what we are doing for the benefit of humanity, status and respect will follow. Our profession will attract more from across genders due to the universal appeal of doing societal good, and as is statistically proven, firms will attract the best and brightest because they have a purpose greater than profit.
If we do this now, maybe more hands will be raised should the question of recommending engineering to children be asked in a few years, and the next generation will not only embrace their future, but have enough people with the capacity to create it, too.
Dr Robert Care AM is the outgoing Australian Engineer of the Year 2015, Canberra-based Arup principal, and chairman of the Common Purpose Charitable Trust.