Close up of a statue of Brunel.

+ Engineers were distinctive heroes during the Industrial Revolution

Why has the engineer fallen from grace? That was the question put to a panel I was part of recently at the documentary film festival Open City Docs Fest.

You don’t see many contemporary engineers in documentary films. And when you do, they’re often portrayed as socially inadequate mechanics, supporting the vision and ideas of others. I think this is how a lot of people see engineers.

As an engineer, I feel we must shoulder a large part of the blame for the way we’re portrayed and perceived today. But I also think there’s plenty we can do to change it.

How did we get to this position? The panel discussion started by considering whether the Second World War was a turning point in the perception of engineers. It asked if seeing engineers put their skills to such destructive effect changed people’s opinions of them. I had to agree, particularly in regards to the dropping of the H-bomb at the end of the war.

Compare this with the perception of engineers during the industrial revolution. We think of engineers from that time as part of a great leap forward – distinctive heroes with distinctive personas like Isambard Kingdom Brunel doing great things. I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that characters like Brunel were public relations-savvy entrepreneurs as well as being brilliant engineers.

So what would it take for engineers today to be held in similarly high regard? How can we get people excited about engineering? To start with, I think engineers have to get better at expressing our ideas and opinions – because we’re living in an opinion age where thought leadership is a valuable currency. And the public want to be able to identify and empathise with individual engineers.

In building engineering, the Western world currently has around ten times more engineers than it does architects. But I’d be willing to bet you can find at least ten times more comments and opinions in the media from architects than from engineers. We have to close this gap.

Another related issue is our background in mathematics. We’re examined by questions that ask us to find the single, definitive answer – all other answers being wrong. Being trained to solve puzzles means we’re less comfortable dealing with more subjective areas where one solution may be as good as another; where it comes down to our opinion. 

To address this, we need a more open-ended design curriculum in schools. Pupils need to learn how to apply design thinking to open-ended problems, rather than simply undertake specific tasks in wood, metal or textiles.

In tertiary education, engineering students need to understand how to use intuition, hunch and judgement to reach solutions as well as to deploy their mathematical skills. I think there’s room for this in the curriculum because there’s scope to spend less time on applied maths. As computers do more and more of the mathematics for us, we only really need to understand the principles behind the calculations.  

Instead, students can learn how engineering, and systems thinking in particular, can help us solve some of the serious or wicked problems we face in today’s resource-constrained world. We can produce engineers who, rather than waiting for clients to present us with their problems to solve, look for open-ended challenges.

We can’t change the education system overnight. But as engineers we can be passionate about what we do, proud of what we’ve achieved, and prepared to tell people about it in an engaging way.

If the profession can embrace new ideas and express itself better, people will get behind engineering and I think the engineer will rise again.