Engineering our future: leadership, multidisciplinary collaboration, and our community

Boundaries of all forms are dissolving – national, economic and technological – and are dramatically changing engineering roles, say The Warren Centre’s Ashley Brinson and Richard Kell AM in this month’s edition of ATSE Focus.

Innovation – hence change – has always been integral to engineering. Engineers have built the infrastructure that defines present contemporary life: modern cities, transportation, energy systems and brilliant digital communications. New generations of technology promise even higher technical performance.

It is clear that the profession is changing: interactively, with the societies that engineers serve, and reactively, with the technology the profession itself is creating. The catalogue of engineering disciplines is expanding with data analytics, robotics and artificial intelligence as Australian engineers shape our highly globalised profession. A future is unfolding rich with multidisciplinary challenges.

A National Innovation and Science Agenda video features children declaring that the most exciting jobs of the future do not even exist yet. A girl proclaims, “When I grow up I’m thinking I’ll be … a tele-remote surgeon,” and a boy announces he will be a “3D printing architect”. The future will be limited only by our imagination

The future of the engineering profession will be defined not only by the remarkable technical opportunities faced in today’s hyper-connected, global society, but also by community aspirations. To explore this, we consider today’s global context, from outside the profession, according to the dimensions of boundaries, aspirations, security and social expectations.

Boundaries have dissolved

Historic boundaries that separated nations are less meaningful today.

The 2010 Arab Spring uprising sparked a chain reaction that rapidly spread on Facebook and YouTube. From Tunisia to Libya, Egypt and Syria, expectations moved swiftly from the incident’s epicentre, culminating in a vast migration of Syrian refugees across Turkey into Europe.

Today’s crises are not contained and isolated. Problems that start locally spill rapidly over porous borders. Similarly, environmental challenges are not confined to national borders.

Ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) required multilateral international action. Although CFC manufacturers denied any problem existed, the concerns were real and only international action could address the scale of the damage. Unilateral action by any one country would not suffice.

Sulphur dioxide emissions also demanded international response as pollution emitted from Austria very rudely crossed the German border and attacked Cologne Cathedral. Only multilateral cooperation could address acid rain.

Today’s environmental challenge is the climate impact from greenhouse gas emissions. The solutions matrix is highly complicated, because large emitters are the energy and transport systems on which we are totally reliant.

No single engineering solution addresses reliability, affordability and emissions. Engineers Australia calls for professionals to rise to the challenge and to “exercise leadership and to practise engineering to foster the health, safety and wellbeing of the community and the environment”.

Economic boundaries have also dissolved. Free trade agreements (FTAs) have redefined Australia’s relationships to regional economies. Described as ‘the Rise of the Rest’, rapid Asian modernisation is both a threat and an opportunity for engineers.

By 2030, an additional 400 million people in rural China and India will join the global middle class, as sophisticated and newly built Asian cities rise in the north. Modernisation and middle-class wealth drive demand for Australian commodities and value-added specialties such as vaccines and biomedical devices.

Technology boundaries are dissolving, blurring and merging. Global innovation cycles occur rapidly. Computers and digitisation are ubiquitous. Data movement across boundaries amplifies and exaggerates the impacts of FTAs and the Asian Rise. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber and Alibaba exemplify the dominance of big data, mobile computing and the digital platform economy. Modern projects are executed globally.

As an example, in Geoje, Korea, the Australian subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell is presently commissioning the floating LNG vessel Prelude, the largest ever man-made sea vessel. Technip France, Samsung Engineering and Korean Gas are delivering the $16 billion engineering marvel. Execution of the complex project was enabled through highly synchronised, highly distributed digitised engineering networks. Virtual teams coordinate commissioning between Perth and Geoje exploiting the boundary-less world to deliver a project that might have been technically impossible or economically unfeasible in yesterday’s disconnected economy.

Data science is merging across boundaries as engineers apply mathematics in remarkable ways.

Boundaries are simply dissolving – national boundaries, economic boundaries and technology boundaries – and are changing traditional engineering roles.

An aspirational response

The second global force influencing the profession flows from this boundary-less world.

Today’s engineers aspire to deliver a better quality of life. Communities and the profession share the dream of building a better world. Humanitarian engineering has evolved to a sub-discipline of modern civil engineering. Engineers Without Borders and RedR apply engineering talent to aid developing countries in times of need.

Further evidence of aspiration is the profession’s determination to raise participation of women in engineering. Australia’s engineering has only 11% female senior managers.

Stronger representation is needed not just for reasons of social fairness. The nation must add more women to the engineering capacity because Australia cannot afford to run a national economy without half the potential skill on-deck. McKinsey reports the compelling economic case that gender and ethnic diversity are consistently correlated to higher financial performance and productivity.

Security, fear and disruption

Today’s global context would be incomplete without acknowledging security concerns. Despite living in a world without boundaries, despite strong aspirations, fear looms.

A reaction is occurring against globalisation. The Brexit vote, the Trump phenomenon and the domestic resurgence of nationalist Australian politics expose emotions generated by the disruptive impacts of globalisation and international security incidents. The world without boundaries is under question as people demand answers to legitimate fears.

There is global competition for scarce resources. The mining boom showed how hungry growing economies in Asia consume resources to build new cities that house and raise new middle classes. Australian iron and copper built the boom of China. Population growth necessitates engineering solutions to increase global supplies of food and water.

Australia’s recent LNG export projects fuel China, Korea and Japan but, domestically, gas prices have risen sharply because Australia is connected to Asian economies – an economic side-effect that seems that have surprised some decision-makers.

Simultaneously, competition and militarisation in the South China Sea raise fears as China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam assert claims over subsea resources. Australia has responded by committing massive defence investments, and engineering is the key to this initiative. Cyber risks undermine community feelings of security as we are progressively more reliant on digital systems.

As engineers increasingly automate the economy, the security of traditional employment is threatened. Opportunities are created, but many employment activities will disappear as robots and artificial intelligence systems displace human work.

As innovations cross boundaries, some spectators mistake globalisation as the cause for disruption, but the reality is far more complex. Future disruption will disproportionately affect regional rural economies, and economic gains may be concentrated in urban centres.

Middle class knowledge professions will be transferred to AI systems in a process described by some as the ‘hollowing out of the middle’. Engineers are at the centre of this social dislocation and will need to contribute to potential solutions.

New social expectations

The fourth global context dimension is the effect of digital media, its influence on social expectations and new constraints on technology.

Engineers are building robots, delivering artificial intelligence and launching autonomous cars. Facebook and Twitter are the offspring of modern IT, and hyper-connected, globalised social speed interacts strongly with our work and the identity of our profession.

The future we are building interacts to amplify the community’s voice. Cloud-based social media is a platform for alternative facts that fuel and intensify confusion during rapid change, raising an imperative for engineers and scientists to make the real facts understood.

The Engineering Deans of Australia’s leading universities recently identified 10 technology clusters predicted to shape the future: energy; future cities; advanced materials and manufacturing; big data; robotics; precision farming and food security; medtech and health; cyber security and networked society. In all fields, continuing education and ever closer collaboration between industry, academia and government are essential to effective engineering delivery in the future.

Perhaps equally important to the technical themes and challenges, we must recognise that engineers work within a complex social system. Communities shape our profession in new ways driven by new senses of boundaries, legitimate and imagined security concerns, and new social concerns. The rapid technology changes that engineers create interact with our profession, driving our community’s voice and expectations.

We live in an age of escalating community expectations, requiring the engineering profession to equip itself to rise and meet new challenges, to innovate and commercialise solutions that deliver a prosperous future.

Ashley Brinson is Executive Director of The Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering. He has broad experience across the technology and innovation spectrum and more than 25 years in industry. Richard Kell AM FTSE is Chair of The Warren Centre. He has spent his working life as a consulting engineer in infrastructure engineering.

This article was originally published in Issue 201 of ATSE Focus magazine. Read the magazine online or download this article as a printable PDF (671 kB).

Image: University of Sydney engineering students undertaking fieldwork in Gujarat, India. Find out more about Humanitarian Engineering at the University of Sydney.