You’re too cre­ative to be an en­gi­neer

DEMM Engineering & Manufacturing - - FRONT PAGE - By LIAM HAYES

The en­gi­neers of yes­ter­year spent hours painstak­ingly draw­ing the in­tri­ca­cies of de­signs for bridges, build­ings and other in­fra­struc­ture. With slide rules and log ta­bles as the tools of trade, en­gi­neers nav­i­gated the bound­aries of physics and math­e­mat­ics to bring the iconic forms of their day to life. The en­gi­neer 2.0 then emerged us­ing CAD and other dig­i­tal tools to do the same, faster and with greater ac­cu­racy. They solved in­creas­ingly more com­plex questions, with the re­sults be­ing even more so­phis­ti­cated and ef­fi­cient in­fra­struc­ture to sat­isfy the needs of ever- grow­ing pop­u­la­tions.

As many of these dig­i­tal tools be­come more ad­vanced and au­to­mated, and even self-learn­ing, the en­gi­neer must now evolve even fur­ther to en­sure their rel­e­vance in a dig­i­tal econ­omy. Stand­ing at the dawn of an age of new in­tel­li­gence, could the ma­chines they helped de­sign ac­tu­ally dis­rupt the en­gi­neers that cre­ated them? Is this a cruel irony of can­ni­bal­is­ing your own pro­fes­sion and, if so, what does the next gen­er­a­tion of en­gi­neers ac­tu­ally look like?

“What do you want to be when you leave school?” In the past, the tra­di­tional, most ‘re­spectable’ an­swer to this im­por­tant ques­tion was ‘a doc­tor’ or ‘a lawyer’. A ca­reer which re­quired ‘cre­ativ­ity’ was frowned upon, risky and cer­tainly not lu­cra­tive. But all of this is chang­ing. It has to change. To­mor­row’s econ­omy will be one in which cre­ativ­ity isn’t the pre­serve of the artists, de­sign­ers or writ­ers. The tra­di­tion­ally ‘left-brained’, ‘con­ser­va­tive’ and ‘safe’ will re­quire a very dif­fer­ent tool­kit to sur­vive, and thrive. De­fy­ing stereo­types is fast be­com­ing an es­sen­tial skill of em­ploy­able grad­u­ates, in­clud­ing en­gi­neers.

The widely sup­ported #IlookLikeAnEngi­neer cam­paign was a pow­er­ful demon­stra­tion of the fact that even in 2016, our def­i­ni­tion of what those who work in tech should look (and act) like hasn’t evolved enough. A year ago, Isis Wenger, a fe­male plat­form en­gi­neer, was fea­tured in a re­cruit­ment cam­paign which sparked de­ri­sive com­ments from com­plete strangers and ex­posed hid­den as­sump­tions about what an en­gi­neer should look (and act) like.

Wenger went on to is­sue a call to en­gi­neers and those in the tech in­dus­try far and wide: “Do you not fit the ‘cookie-cut­ter’ mould of what peo­ple be­lieve en­gi­neers should look like? I in­vite you to help spread the word and help us re­de­fine ‘what an en­gi­neer should look like’.” With that, the hash­tag #ILookLikeAnEngi­neer” was born, with thou­sands post­ing pic­tures of them­selves across so­cial me­dia in order to defy stereo­typ­i­cal for­mats.

It is clear that an evo­lu­tion is needed, but what do we need to change? What will en­gi­neer­ing look like in the fu­ture?


While dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion might be ren­der­ing cer­tain as­pects of en­gi­neer­ing ob­so­lete, the pro­fes­sion has never be­fore been as crit­i­cal to hu­man progress as it is to­day. Sin­ga­porean en­gi­neer Chade-Meng Tan writes in his ar­ti­cle Wanted: Jolly good en­gi­neers that “The word ‘en­gi­neer’ comes from the Latin words in­ge­niare and in­ge­nium. Sim­ply put, an en­gi­neer is some­one who uses his or her in­ge­nu­ity…to change the world. En­gi­neers solve some of the world’s tough­est prob­lems.”

He goes on to say that like ev­ery other me­trop­o­lis in the world, Sin­ga­pore faces many chal­lenges: cli­mate change, en­ergy scarcity, land scarcity, to name a few. As they rein­vest the time gained from the help of dig­i­tal tools, en­gi­neers will solve these. It will be en­gi­neers who are go­ing to fig­ure out how to in­cor­po­rate ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, robotics and wear­able de­vices into our in­fra­struc­ture and com­mu­ni­ties to pro­pel us to­wards smart na­tion sta­tus, and even smart world. It will be en­gi­neers who will be be­hind ef­forts to cur­tail emis­sions and drive en­ergy ef­fi­ciency after rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the cli­mate change agree­ment. It will be en­gi­neers who will fig­ure out how to com­fort­ably fit a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion into lim­ited land space.


If en­gi­neer­ing is go­ing to solve the prob­lems of to­mor­row, there’s a des­per­ate need to prac­tice prob­lem find­ing to­day. En­gi­neers are trained to be good prob­lem­solvers, but too of­ten they wait for peo­ple to tell them about the prob­lem that needs to be solved.

To­mor­row’s clients (and com­mu­ni­ties) will look for un­con­ven­tional thinkers who will look them in the eye and say ‘You’ve got an is­sue, but you’ve iden­ti­fied the prob­lem wrong’. These un­con­ven­tional thinkers will have a de­sire to chal­lenge the norm and shape ideas in the pur­suit of what might be pos­si­ble if we for­get for­mer par­a­digms and ways of think­ing. They will have an abil­ity to pull back the lens for clients seek­ing to in­vest in the fu­ture.


While a steady hand and straight lines dif­fer­en­ti­ated the draughtsper­son of yes­ter­year, times are chang­ing. Fast for­ward to 2020, and sought-after en­gi­neer­ing com­pa­nies may have a team of game de­vel­op­ers on staff to fa­cil­i­tate bet­ter com­mu­nity en­gage­ment.

They’ll have an army of graphic de­sign­ers de­vel­op­ing in­puts for 3D and aug­mented re­al­ity prod­ucts; and they may even em­ploy pro­fes­sional artists who can bring to life vi­sions of the fu­ture as in­puts into in­fra­struc­ture de­signs. Suc­cess­ful com­pa­nies will be those who in­vest in their staff as they hone the skills clients are al­ready telling them they re­quire in fu­ture.

The MBA has re­cently been re­designed to face the mod­ern world. The volatil­ity and un­cer­tainty in busi­ness is best nav­i­gated us­ing the the­o­ries of de­sign. Isn’t it about time that en­gi­neer­ing schools sim­i­larly rein­vented them­selves? Where many of the ba­sic func­tions of en­gi­neer­ing will be per­formed by a self-learn­ing com­puter in fu­ture, and not an en­gi­neer, the en­gi­neer will have to be­come an interpreter and trans­la­tor of new com­plex tech­nolo­gies into busi­ness ap­pli­ca­tions.

This will de­mand cre­ativ­ity as a core skill and will see the en­gi­neer cre­atively ap­ply tech­nol­ogy to solve an un­met need. Cre­ativ­ity as an en­gi­neer is no longer an oxy­moron, but the new se­cret in­gre­di­ent to keep­ing en­gi­neers where we as a so­ci­ety need them….find­ing the fu­ture for us all.

En­gi­neers have a very ex­cit­ing fu­ture ahead, but it’s a fu­ture that is in jeop­ardy. Un­less en­gi­neer­ing com­pa­nies evolve, ‘an en­gi­neer’ will cease to be a vi­able an­swer to the ques­tion: “What do you want to be when you leave school?” An en­gi­neer’s time to fight back is now, and it is tena­cious, re­lent­less prob­lem find­ing and a dif­fer­ent tool­kit that will lead to a brighter fu­ture.

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