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Stephen Fry and a new engineering enlightenment Simon Harrison

Technology developments mean that engineering is going to require much more than a technical education in the future.

I noticed today that Stephen Fry, TV’s default for witty erudition, is to appear on a panel at Ecobuild, and it led my thoughts back to that arts/science divide, which presumably the Ecobuild organisers are trying to bridge. We all know it, in the UK at least.

Come the age of fourteen or so we all either choose science subjects and fill in with a few choices (or compulsions) in the arts and humanities, or vice versa. In that sometimes poorly informed decision, a million futures are determined. Or precluded. Choices, especially at A level, are a little more flexible that they once were, but the best engineering courses focus hard on maths, physics and chemistry as entry requirements.

It didn’t used to be like that. In Enlightenment times knowledge in all fields was prized. The composer Haydn, when travelling in England, took great interest in Hershel and his telescopes, for example, and the early railways inspired artists and writers aplenty. But as the separate professions emerged it become easy to focus on detailed knowledge, leading to intellectual and novelist CP Snow’s famous book ‘Two Cultures’ of 1956, which excoriated the cultural schism between the humanities and sciences. Nothing’s changed in 60 years.

Does it matter? Yes.

Speaking both languages is fundamental to our struggle to communicate engineering to the half or more of the population that doesn’t understand it. As fundamental to our struggle to communicate engineering is that we engineers typically don’t take the trouble to see the human and cultural perspectives of what we do… at least until something happens that stops a project going forward. Everyone is missing out and society is the poorer.

Now we have new reasons for developing a more Enlightenment mindset. Technology is changing the creation and operation of infrastructure, and with it the roles of engineers. Maths and hard science will of course still be fundamental. But much of what we currently labour over as engineers will become automated. Some fear a hollowing out of employment for skilled professionals.

But I think we’ll see ever-increasing complexity in the web of human interactions surrounding our projects, requiring a shift in focus, but not deskilling. “Smart” technology tends to cut across sector and discipline silos and need a lot more collaboration; public expectations of communication are increasing markedly; and scepticism of “experts” isn’t going away.

Convergence of science and art is needed. Engineers are going to have to get a lot better at communication and engagement, at the same time as much of the more routine aspects formerly core to engineering are automated. While there will always be some need for deeply technical engineers, pushing technical envelopes through research and development for example, many engineers will need different skills – skills that bridge the two cultures.

Provided engineering courses flex to accommodate this, this opens up some exciting possibilities of widened recruitment pools and a much wider diversity of people joining the engineering profession. It might even solve our skills shortages and, over time, create a much better climate of engagement with those who use the infrastructure we build and run.

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