The Role of the Engineer

John’s comment on a previous blog post got me thinking about the role of engineers in our society.

Primarily we optimize. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of engineers that are innovators, inventors, and entrepreneurs, but I believe we’re stepping out of the core role of an engineer when we do that. Our core competency is to get more output from less input.

We’re flexible in our optimization. If we need to get a product to market fast, we can reduce the development time at the expense of resources or quality. Likewise, we relentlessly try to drive down the cost, as profit is the motivating factor behind the businesses that employ us. We do all of this within physical and legal constraints, like the laws of physics and building codes.

That’s why I think it’s funny when anyone proposes that we can “engineer” our way out of some environmental crisis. Engineers will only solve environmental problems if the environmental parameters are included in the equation. If you raise the price of oil, we’ll redesign our processes to use less oil. If you put environmental regulations in place, we’ll redesign our products to meet that criteria.

When I say that something like climate change is a problem for lawyers and politicians, not engineers, this is what I mean. It’s not a technological challenge. It’s a societal challenge. If you really want to consume less fossil fuels then replace income taxes with a fossil fuel tax and see what happens: we’ll automatically shift to other sources of energy, for we are the instruments of that policy.

As engineers, we do have some say. In our role as citizens we vote. We are involved in the creation of new building codes and international standards. Even so, it’s political will that makes change. If you’re waiting for engineering to solve these big issues, don’t. Engineering will follow policy.

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