Humane engineering

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Future engineers are expected to appreciate, more than before, the human dimensions of technology. They need to understand the nuances of working in a culturally diverse space

Humane engineering
Technologies are developed to meet human needs. The biggest challenge the engineering profession faces is its integration with human needs. Engineers need to simplify complex devices and make them user-friendly. Engineers have done pretty well in the past. With this, they have fuelled expectations of the common man. Engineering has made the common man believe that every task can be accomplished. When we can put man on the Moon, why can’t we eliminate hunger, poverty and disease, they ask? On one hand, we are not limited by technology, and on the other we are worried about risks to the environment, health and safety. In this changing scenario, competition is natural. But, the new world also wants methods that are appropriate to make cooperation natural. We can’t live in an isolated world. We are witnessing organisations benefiting from alliances and joint ventures with competitors. We are seeing the virtues of ‘cooperative competition’.

Engineers work under various constraints: nature, cost, safety, environment, ergonomics, reliability, manufacturability and maintainability, among others. They need revitalisation from time to time. The industry wants real-world engineers equipped to deal with the complex interactions, across many disciplines. The public expects confident engineers — those who can handle unknown and unexpected problems. Future engineers are expected to appreciate, more than before, the human dimensions of technology. They are expected to have a grasp on global issues. They need to understand the nuances of working in a culturally diverse space. According to some experts, the merger of creative disciplines (art, music, architecture) with engineering activities (design and innovation) will add value to the engineering profession. Good engineering design should not be deprived of the benefits of a broad spectrum of life experiences as adequate familiarisation with societal demands is essential for practical technological literacy.

From the age of “speed and power” in the 20th century, we have entered the age of biology and information. In the 20th century, it was physics, electronics, high-speed communications and high-speed long-distance transportation. The 21st century belongs to biotechnology and nanotechnology, and also to macro issues like energy, water and sustainability. “An emerging element of this evolving engineering context is “open innovation”, writes Charles Vest. Open innovation organisations don’t confine themselves to inner means for solving problems. They go out, wherever they have to, to find solutions. Once they know where the solutions are available, it doesn’t matter if they are available with a competitor; they make all efforts to obtain it, not necessarily by adopting buying strategies. As Vest writes, in the knowledge age, both the ‘tiny systems’ and ‘macro systems’ are going to play central role. The future engineers, thus, need to be better equipped to deal with people of diverse background, such as social science, management, and communications. “Much of what will be exciting and valuable in the 21st century will be the work of engineers who will move tiny systems technology into macro systems applications,” says Vest.

What are engineers? Creators, innovators or problem solvers. What are the grand challenges the future engineers face? Should they remain ‘behind the scene’ as they have traditionally remained? Whenever we think of social issues, do we ever think of the engineers? Shouldn’t they be involved more in setting the public policy where they matter? They are known more for the failures than for successes. This is not the right perception. They need to change their public image of engineering.

Some of the grand challenges, from an engineer’s point of view, are environment protection, hunger, energy and spread of diseases. Another challenge is “How to make engineering attractive for the youth?” There is a need for developers of responsible technologies and products. We do need managers to manage things, but we also need adequate number of things to manage. But, often it seems that we have more managers than the things to manage. We need more engineering icons and role models. Engineers can’t afford to be bystanders. They need to understand that humanity requires engineering solutions. We need more engineers in hardcore engineering sectors. There is a need to build faith in the public that engineers are sensitive to their concerns. As Cherry A Murray says, engineers of the future are like “T-shaped” thinkers, deep in one field, but able to work across all fields and communicate well.

In this changing scenario, we need different kinds of engineering educators. Engineering educators need to recognise the importance of life-long learning. Some of us may disagree, but many of our engineering educators are not practising engineers. For future engineers, write Robin Adams and Richard Felder, it is imperative to shift the focus of engineering curricula from transmission of content to development of skills that support engineering thinking and professional judgment. Along with this, we need to change the learning environment. Formal classrooms are not enough. Social learning is crucial for the successful implementation of engineering solutions. The system of engineering education has various components. It includes engineering profession, the society it serves, educational institutions, educators, and students. All these components need to be weaved into a whole. That is the challenge of future engineering education.

(The writer is a biotechnologist and ED, Birla Institute of

Scientific Research, Jaipur)

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