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Thinking

Engineering smart nations

Aurecon

Cities like Singapore and Dubai have Smart Nation ambitions, and will need engineers to play a more active role in shaping the agenda.

Understanding what makes a city resilient, sustainable and future-ready requires serious collaboration between government, urban planners, scientists, economists, ecologists, sociologists, architects, and engineers. Through this close-knit partnership, we can connect the software, hardware and ‘heartware’, giving the city its own unique buzz.

Unconventional engineers

Today’s problems are messy and increasingly complex, whether it’s designing smart cities, eliminating poverty, or mitigating climate change.

Building a smart nation will need smart engineers: not ‘smart’ in just the technical sense, but more unconventional smarts. For example, being engaging, persuasive, collaborative, or co-creative – traits not normally associated with stereotypical, introverted engineers.

Take, for instance, the current initiative for Self-Driving Smart Transportation in Dubai, which aims to convert 25 per cent of the total number of trips in Dubai to driverless trips by 2030. I would argue that building a closed environment for autonomous environment would be the easy part. The harder part would be the infrastructure of the transition phase - where driverless vehicles can operate safely alongside human-controlled ones.

Or consider Singapore’s drive to become a cashless society. I would argue that building the infrastructure backbone and connecting the bits and bytes is the easy part. The harder part is how to ensure that the users enjoy the convenience without feeling that their privacy has been compromised. Or that the disadvantaged are not left behind.

I believe that engineers have an important role to play in designing the shape of our future. We are already doing it, through being responsible for designing and building the infrastructure upon which our human progress rests. Without hospitals, roads, electricity, or even WiFi – how different our lives would be!

Unlike architects, much of our work is invisible and often taken for granted. It is only when things don’t work e.g. metros or lifts, that the engineer is summoned (or blamed). So, we tend to be looked upon as the problem-solvers. Want a quick way to connect the northern and eastern parts of a city? Let’s get some engineers to design a metro system.

It’s time for engineers to be more visible and play a more active part in the design of a better future. A good example is how Elon Musk changed the energy debate, setting the agenda for the modern energy market as opposed to following someone else’s direction.

But how?

Renaissance engineers

Firstly, we must retain our technical mastery of our chosen field. Whether we are a civil, mechanical, or ICT engineer, we must be true masters of our craft, thus enabling us to speak from a position of authority.

Secondly, we have a need to develop soft skills such as communication, collaboration, design, and transdisciplinary thinking. This will allow us to be more persuasive, like  Elon Musk who is able to bring ‘nerdy topics’ to a broad-based audience and fire their imaginations.

I suspect the second will be harder of the two for many of us. The science of engineering teaches us to apply the immutable laws of physics and maths in order to develop solutions to problems. The solution is either right or wrong; either something will work or it won’t.

But having a technically correct solution is no longer enough. We must be able to incorporate the human element in our solution. And that is never black and white; more often it is a spectrum of greys.

To be a T-shaped engineer – one with deep technical expertise and broad-based soft skills – is not a pipe dream or wish. It can be done. At Aurecon, we are already actively developing engineers of the future through our in-house Design Academy. We take good engineers and make them great with an intensive programme where they focus on activities such as art, abstract modelling, human-centred design or gamification to build expertise in skills not traditionally associated with engineering.

Disrupting engineers

Disruption is not new to the world of engineers. In the last 50 years, we’ve gone from slide rules to Auto-CAD to designing in 4D and now in AR/VR. We have seen our jobs outsourced to cheaper locations. Ironically, if an algorithm can be written to automate something, we are often the ones to do it.

I am frequently asked whether an engineer can be replaced by artificial intelligence. My response is this: any engineer who can connect their technical mastery to human needs will not be easily replaced.

As the designers of the infrastructure upon which our nations’ progress rests, we owe it to ourselves and our profession to disrupt our conventional function and play a bigger role in shaping the future.

This article is based on a lecture on “The Future of Engineering and Engineers” delivered by Professor Kourosh Kayvani at the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Engineering on 26 September 2017.

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