Engineering – by humans, for humans

September 5, 2019

When engineers think about the future, do we get so engrossed in the complex technical problems that we don’t attend enough to the human angle?

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Engineers have a reputation, whether rightly or wrongly, for being poor communicators, working obsessively and in isolation, and focusing on the immediate goal rather than its impacts on communities. Often, clichés have a basis in truth. If we are going to shift perceptions, we need to start by thinking about the way we work and the leadership we show to the next generation of engineers.

There’s no way we can predict the major developments, challenges or solutions of the next five or six generations of engineering careers. What we should focus on is what we can do right now to lead change in our profession and our communities – and I think the keys are communication, collaboration and community.

Communication

I recently listened to a podcast in which two energy market experts talked with a power system engineer. They discussed all sorts of technical matters relating to frequency and voltage control. I love those topics, but this conversation was limited and uninspiring because the participants simply didn’t have a common language or understanding.

We need to learn to communicate in ways that a variety of people can understand. That will mean better conversations with the people who can help our work have greater impact, and it will help our communities to appreciate the importance of our work in their lives.

It’s too easy for us as a profession to sit at our desks or stand under our hard hats and luxuriate in how clever we are, and then bemoan how so many people have no idea what we do and don’t value our work.

When things that involve engineers go wrong, a flurry of opinions erupts. Failures such as the blackout in South Australia, or the cladding issues at the Grenfell Towers, or issues with airlines or bridges or dams all lead to our communities questioning and debating engineering practice. Engineers tend to try to stay out of this rough and tumble for fear of being misrepresented. Yet maybe it’s better that we do engage where we can, since being misrepresented on a small issue is better than allowing a groundswell of misguided public opinion due to a lack of understanding of engineering principles. 

We need to try to better explain our work and find simple ways to convey the complexities of the decisions that we make. 

Collaboration

The world is far more complex now than it was a century ago – but it is impossible to imagine what level and pace of change future generations will experience. If we want to transform our world or help build a better future, we can’t do it by ourselves. 

Engineering no longer operates in isolation, if it ever did. We must collaborate across the engineering team and across other professional disciplines to achieve truly effective development for our communities. Sometimes we may need to focus a little less on technical delivery as a primary outcome, and increase our recognition of the value gained by engaging successfully with the communities on whom the project relies for success.

Collaboration makes our work more effective, and exposes us to a wider range of inputs and values that we can incorporate into our designs and processes. Engineering can be a leader but it can also be a facilitator for better outcomes when we draw on, listen to and learn from the other experts involved in other aspects of our projects.

Community

Engineering work almost always benefits more people than merely the one who pays the bill. Much of my work is in connecting wind farms and solar farms to the grid. Mostly my work is paid for by the owner of the farm, and while it delivers direct benefits to the owner through return on investment, it also affects everyone connected to the nearby network. It affects the network service provider and market operator, it pays salaries, and it supplies the clean energy that helps the country reduce emissions and meet its international targets. In other words, my work, which may seem intangible, has tangible effects in the real world.

If we agree that our labours produce real impacts, we need to take better care to fully consider the wider consequences of our work, which often has the potential to cause ‘collateral damage’. We can’t build a road or a wind farm without changing the landscape. When we build a machine, it uses energy and may emit pollutants; and it reduces reliance on manual labour, which may put someone out of a job. There may be a risk to lives, livelihoods or the environment if something goes wrong.

Do we always make decisions about these matters with the community front of mind, or do we place our clients on the higher pedestal? This is a tricky area and I’m not espousing a puritanical approach. However, if we knew in 1919 what we know now about lead poisoning, acid rain, greenhouse gases, scarcity and general sustainability principles, what different choices could have been made?

In a time of automation, we need to think about benefits and risks and how they affect our communities. On one occasion early in my career, I designed a controller to turn on and off a couple of compressors at a power station. I wrote some code to balance the run hours. A few months after the new system was commissioned, I asked one of the operators how the system was going, in terms of the run hours management, and he said ‘you’ve done me out of a job’. I hope he was joking. The task he’d been doing wasn’t particularly important, but there was value in having a person who was in tune with the equipment to take care of it, and there was also value in giving that person dignity through work.

My point is that we must keep our communities foremost in our minds as we go about our work. It’s not just about what we produce. It is the way we work and the people we choose to work with and for. Our influence on the development of the next generation of engineers perhaps has more impact on communities than our actual work outputs.

Through communication, collaboration and community, engineering can be both ‘more human’ and ‘for humans’.

About the author

Donald Vaughan is Entura’s Principal Consultant for Primary Electrical Engineering. He has over 20 years of experience providing advice on regulatory and technical requirements for generators, substations and transmission systems. Donald specialises in the performance of power systems. His experience with generating units, governors and excitation systems provides a helpful perspective on how the physical electrical network behaves and how it can support the transition to a high renewables environment.

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