Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Thought About Engineering and Technology

Brian Arthur in his book, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, has a chapter on engineering. The term "engineer" can refer to a member of one of the engineering professions or it can be a verb for a kind of manipulation. Arthur seems to use the term in a slightly different fashion, focusing on professional producers and users of technology rather than artisanal or journeyman producers and users of technology. I presume that he would say that the medical profession "engineers" medical technology, while others would consider engineering to apply primarily to the technology used by civil, mechanical, electrical, chemical and other engineering professions.

I am reminded of the traditional distinction between doctors of medicine (who were gentlemen educated in Latin) and surgeons (who came from the plebeian barber surgeons). Even today British surgeons are addressed as Mr. rather than Dr. reflecting that old distinction between medical practitioners who work with their hands and those who do not. There was a similar difference between French and English civil engineers in the 19th century; the French were trained through institutions of tertiary education while the English learned their profession through apprenticeship with senior civil engineers. The English were reportedly proud of their practical, hands-on approach.

It is interesting that some of my engineer colleagues are now using the term "science, technology and engineering" as if engineering is not fundamentally technology.

Arthur talks about electrical and chemical engineering as professions that emerged with the emergence of new technological domains that required a scientific background. They may be contrasted with military and civil engineering which were the earliest fields to emerge as requiring professional engineers. Of course, all engineers today are produced in colleges of engineering, have a grounding in science, and approach their work with strong analytic capabilities and a "toolkit" of engineering knowledge and technique.

It occurs to me that there is a significant difference in engineering practice according to the scale of the output. That would be typified by the range from the engineer building a road or a dam to the engineer designing a new personal computer to be sold as a commodity. I suspect that this is indeed a continuum, with intermediate stages. Thus there are engineers working to produce high performance race cars or space craft of which only a small number of units will be produced.

I think Arthur would agree that broadly defined, a road or a dam could be termed a device. In both cases the engineer would be concerned with the means of production of the desired device, albeit a construction project in the civil engineering case versus a production line in the electronics engineering project.

The civil engineer who is planning a road or a railroad is using his engineering synthesis skills to plan the construction, and is making choices for the bedding and surface of the route as well as for the cuts, tunnels, and grades to be used. Failing to recognize the importance of the technical choices to be made and the technology involved in building and maintaining civil works may be part of the reason that developing nations so often fail to develop adequate cadres of civil engineers.

Note also that there is a difference between engineers working in the public sector versus those working in the private sector. Both may have been trained in the same schools and have passed the same professional examinations, but the civil servant is doing engineering to achieve a public purpose while the the engineer in a commercial organization is of course concerned with the profits of the firms investors.

A strong engineering profession is fundamental for developing a strong infrastructure of roads, railroads, canals, airports, ports, electrical power systems, potable water and sewerage systems, and irrigation. These systems are critical to the economic productivity of the entire society. So too, in these days, a strong engineering profession is critical not only to manufacturing but also to technologically sophisticated industries such as medicine and financial services. In all these fields, professional engineers are needed both for their technological mastery but also for the professionalization that breeds responsibility and ethical conduct.

I have suggested that UNESCO strengthen its support for engineering, a support that would include emphasis on engineering education and for engineering professional societies (as well as professional certification and regulation of the professions). Such an effort would contribute to UNESCO's program supporting capacity development in less developed nations, and indeed only UNESCO among the UN agencies has a charter that would allow such a broad support of engineering capacity development. (Of course, the UN system should coordinate for such support, with FAO helping to support agricultural engineering, WHO helping to support biomedical engineering, the ITU helping to support electronics engineering, etc.)

No comments: