Craig Price was the keynote speaker at the University of Canterbury Civil and Natural Resources Engineering Research Conference in October 2019. The following is a precis of his speech.
Engineering careers have become highly diverse over the past 50 years. Engineers are now tackling complex social issues such as poverty, inequality, disaster recovery or climate change. Their work is in mega cities and small towns, remote communities and in both high and low-income countries - World Economic Forum
In Silicon Valley, engineers are working on evolving technologies to improve the reflectivity of clouds at sea, to mitigate rising sea temperatures. At Harvard University, engineers are looking at emerging technologies to deliberately manipulate the environment to partially offset the impacts of climate change. Leadership from the engineering profession is more important than ever, as we look to find solutions for the most critical issues of our time.
We are already making a significant contribution to global challenges through our innovation and technology, rational and critical thinking. I believe that now is the time to step up to the opportunity and challenge of societal leadership, beyond being seen only as technical advisors. As individuals and as a profession, we have so much to offer.
Engineers can contribute to society through leadership, be it at a technical, project, business or community level.
We can make a real difference through:
- 1. Managing/mitigating existing and future environmental risks
- 2. Proactively designing out environmental impacts
- 3. Developing technologies to save our planet.
Leadership, in government and business, is typically dominated by those with business led qualifications. In much of the world, there is still a lack of engineers in leadership roles in central and local government. Engineers only make up around 2% of parliaments in New Zealand, Australia, the USA and Britain.
In China, President Xi Jinping was educated as an engineer and many of the top Chinese elected government representatives are from STEM backgrounds. Furthermore, engineers and scientists are well represented at senior levels of government officials.
In the latter part of the 20th Century, there was a loss of recognition of engineers as business leaders. More recently there is something of a renaissance with over 20 per cent of Fortune 500 Company CEOs now coming from an engineering background.
An article by American leadership researcher Stephen Covey defined the four imperative attributes for a leader as:
- 1. Inspiring trust
- 2. Clarifying purpose
- 3. Aligning systems
- 4. Unleashing talent.
Covey noted that clarity of purpose and system alignment were second nature to an engineer and inspiring trust and unleashing talent could readily be taught. He argued that acknowledging an engineer’s analytical thinking, calculated risk taking, problem solving approach, realistic outlook and a desire to lead by example gives engineers a natural advantage as leaders. These foundational attributes set engineers apart.
I believe engineers have an innate perseverance and tenacity. Being a successful engineer and moving up the ranks into engineering leadership requires a combination of hard technical skills and soft social skills.
It is my proposition, supported by many papers, that engineers have a lot to offer in this area. Whether it is leadership at a technical or project level, in business, the community, or public office. To support this, we need to do more in terms of contributing to and growing the profile of the engineering profession.
If engineers are going to play such an important role in shaping our future, we need to be reflective of the communities we’re shaping it for and focus on achieving greater diversity. It’s critical we encourage more women, and those from a range of cultures, into the engineering profession and into leadership roles.
In summary, I believe we can make a real difference through our engineering leadership. We can do this by managing and mitigating existing and future risks to provide resilient communities, proactively designing out environmental impacts on our projects and collaborating to redress climate change and transform our planet.
At a time when we need to look at engineers to provide solutions to big challenges, our leadership and input is critical for our future.