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Engineers Aren’t Entrepreneurs

Engineers Aren’t Entrepreneurs

Engineers are no longer entrepreneurs; and that’s why nobody cares about us.

I went to the IABSE Annual Lecture yesterday. It was, of course, inspiring, as you would expect both from the IABSE and the fabulous (a word I rarely employ) Mike Schlaich. I could hardly do this lecture justice with an overview- although I have written articles on both the subject (Elegance and Structural Engineering) and the speaker before- so I won’t.

We solve the problems that stop others from realising their aspirations for the world around us, but we no longer shape it- we are bought and sold by our clients.

But I do want to talk about a thought that went through my mind at the end of lecture. It had been an accidental theme of the talk that innovation of elegant solutions was often hindered by the client’s attitude to risk; that Schlaich had enjoyed the chance to apply and develop new techniques (for example, a carbon fibre stress-ribbon bridge) through his relationship with the Technical University (TU) of Berlin- through academic freedom.

And it hit me; do you know why we haven’t had a famous civil/structural engineer since the industrial age? It’s because we’ve stopped leading designs. We might wonder around telling each other that we’re responsible for the built environment; but all we are really are its facilitators. We solve the problems that stop others from realising their aspirations for the world around us, but we no longer shape it- we are bought and sold by our clients.

Using this site’s family namesake as an example; they lived in an era where the men (and, alas, it was mostly men) who shaped the world were engineers. In 1823 Marc produced a plan for a tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping. Convinced that his (and Cochrane’s) innovative “shield” technology would allow the first tunnel under a navigable river to be constructed- he raised finances from private investors, formed the Thames Tunnel Company in 1824 and was tunnelling by 1825. The tunnel still stands, and is (in fact) utilised by the London Overground.

To misquote someone else from a conversation I had years ago in a lift share; “these days engineers are glorified insurers”. We deliver projects within the risk and cost profiles of our clients; and that means we have little control on what we deliver, just how it’s delivered. It might sound a bit damming, but that’s a massive achievement; it’s quintessentially a pound for a penny and definitely doesn’t mean that we’re any less able- as a profession we still do amazing stuff; arguably more amazing stuff.

But it’s not going to make any of us famous.

Where there was innovation- it was in projects with a high degree of collaboration; where the engineer is essentially promoted to a level they can effect scheme change.

I expect the two most famous engineers of our time are Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Possibly you could throw in Mark Zuckerberg; thanks to the film. They are all entrepreneurs and engineers, and because they’re rich, successful and people associate them with a product they (probably) enjoy- they are inspirational.

They’re also all software engineers. And this is important too- because the internet is analogous with the built environment during industrialisation; although the engineers were ticking over doing products for clients (i.e. heartless cooperation websites), they were also launching companies to fund their own visions (e.g. the innovations that are twitter, node.js, telegram, and whatever comes next) and shape their built environment.

As long as we maintain the chain of client instructs architect (or scheme designer, if your lucky) who gives engineers the problem to solve- we won’t see innovation. Indeed, Schlaich revealed that where he had formed elegant structures through innovation- they were in projects with a high degree of collaboration; where the engineer is essentially promoted to a level they can effect scheme change.

So Mike (if you’re reading this; which I’m pretty sure you’re not)- Don’t just sit on your amazing carbon fibre ‘muscle-dampened’ bridge- be the next Brunel (or Dischinger) and set-up a delivery company, find financial backers, build an innovation, prove that engineers really do design the built environment; and inspire the next generation.

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  1. Just wanted to thank you for writing this post as it sums up how I have been feeling when researching civil engineering as a possible career path. I am just about to sit my A-Levels and have an offer from Leeds for Civil Engineering.
    However I am starting to doubt whether it is right for me. The reason being that it appears civil engineering has little innovation and I am someone who is entrepreneurial and looking to change things.
    Although your blog post says that Engineers are no longer entrepreneurs do you think that it would be possible to be entrepreneurial as a civil engineer in todays world?

    • Hi Andy, civil engineering is a funny one for innovation; there’s a lot of new things happening (BIM- for example), and it’s an industry where if you can do something cheaper/faster/better than someone else, you’ll normally win out. But the ‘products’ of civil engineers have to last 120 years, which means it’s a fairly cautious industry as mistakes can be very costly, and there’s rarely an opportunity to test.