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Whod have believed it? Engineers advocating non-technical solutions

By Eric Claus - posted Tuesday, 9 August 2005


Plumbers and civil engineers (I’m one of the latter, so I can whisper our secrets) are fond of saying more lives have been saved through the introduction of indoor plumbing, sewage treatment and water treatment than from all the medicines and medical treatments that have ever been invented. Prior to the use of these civil engineering techniques, dirty water diseases such as cholera and dysentery were so common that it was almost expected that a few family members would die before they reached adulthood.

The engineers’ boast is probably not entirely true, but there is a ring of truth to it, and it makes for a good self-congratulatory laugh. The source of the self-congratulatory laugh is a good reflection of the mind set of most engineers.

The engineers’ mind set is, “Give us a problem and we will solve it”. The popular image of engineers is the nerd with glasses, a pocket protector and a calculator on his belt. Such an engineer probably exists, but the reality I am more familiar with is the hairy-chested breed that works 30 hours straight to get the factory or construction site back on line, by replacing a motor, redesigning a broken system, organising a concrete pour and reinstalling a pump from another part of the operation to where it is needed. Such engineers never stop to think that something can’t be done or that they should just give up. They use the gear available and get the job done.

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More than once I have called a construction company or an engineering company and when I asked, “What do you guys do?” the response was, “Whatever needs to be done”. I think that attitude is admirable and has benefited society greatly, but there is another side to it.

In 1981 my first boss showed me how engineers solve problems so well. He drew about 15 little boxes on a sheet of paper and said, “These are the problems to be solved”. He then drew a curvy line around about 12 of the boxes and then crossed out the boxes inside the curvy line. He said “Engineers draw a line around the TECHNICAL problems that need to be solved and then solve them. We pretend that the other problems don’t exist, or say it is somebody else’s job to fix them.”

This is oversimplified, but it makes the point: engineers solve technical problems. Politicians, businessmen, teachers, social workers and others solve other problems. This does not denigrate engineers at all. Engineering problems are not easy to solve. Engineers have been so successful at it for many years consequently society tends to believe that it is easy when it’s not.

Given this understanding of engineering, imagine my surprise at the Institution of Engineers, Australia Conference of the Society for Sustainability and Environmental Engineering recently.

The first keynote speaker was Professor Peter Newman from Murdoch University who is a pioneer in the concepts of sustainability in engineering. Newman advocates a method of solving engineering problems in a sustainable way. He calls it “JAZZ”.

JAZZ is intended to get business, community groups, government and all other interested parties to each contribute to the complete sustainable solution to the problem - like the members of a jazz band - each playing their own instrument in their own way, but all combining to play one musical composition.

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This involves working with people to understand concerns about a new project and adapting the project to best meet the needs of all stakeholders. It includes looking at social and economic problems as well as the environmental and engineering ones. Newman calls it interdisciplinary synergies. (Not as I thought - that interdisciplinary synergies were when civil engineers worked with electrical and mechanical engineers!)

Looking around the room I did not see 150 engineers waving their calculators and wondering when the formulas, calculations and rules of thumb were going to be introduced into the presentation as I had expected. Instead they were all nodding their heads in agreement with Newman’s ideas. Engineers with a program to help solve social problems: I had to duck outside to see if pigs were flying past.

The second keynote speaker was Ian Lowe, the incoming president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and a long time advocate of sustainability. He started off as an engineer, but these days is more of a scientist but I suppose he still counts. He said he does not think we can solve the problem of sustainability without a change in community values and social institutions.

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About the Author

Eric Claus has worked in civil and environmental engineering for over 20 years.

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