Should engineers rule the world?

TL;DR – No, but.

But for the rest of you who want to consider the question for a couple of minutes…

Life is messy. It’s easy to look around and find examples of ways in which people do things incorrectly. “If only people did things rationally,” you might think to yourself, “these problems would be avoided.” So some desire rational solutions, such as those that could be provided if engineers ruled the world.

Engineers conferring on prototype design, 1954. By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-23805-1665 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5349654

In 2016, Global Construction Review asked the question “Should engineers rule the world?” But before I look at the possible answers to that question, let me share a couple of anecdotal stories.

Years and years ago, I worked for company that prided itself on being run by engineers, and having an engineering mindset. For this company, that meant that it exerted great effort to design technically superior solutions. Since I am not an engineer, I was therefore able to observe from the sidelines as the company designed and (after some time) released a product that was a technical marvel. There was only one problem: the product was so expensive that no one would buy it.

That same company had designed another technically superior product, but this one was priced reasonably enough that people throughout the world would buy it…except in the United States. There were established competitors in the United States, and it would take a great effort to displace them. From my vantage point in the US, I asked the product people an apparently simple question: why should US customers choose our company’s product rather than the competitors’ products? Apparently my question “did not compute” with the product people, because I never got an answer to my question. I guess they expected the US customers to be dazzled by our product’s obvious superiority or something.

Now that I’ve gotten those two anecdotal stories out of the way, let’s return to Global Construction Review’s question: “Should engineers rule the world?” The article begins by citing an example in which application of engineering principles at the outset could have prevented a catastrophe later on.

Take the Syrian civil war, for instance. In a paper published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Colin P. Kelley and co-authors proposed that a record-breaking drought in northeastern Syria between 2007 and 2010 caused the sudden migration of 1.5 million poor farmers into cities, setting the scene for the widespread unrest that erupted into outright revolt in early 2011.

The thinking, of course, is that if the drought had been minimized or averted through the timely application of scientific principles, the migration would not have happened, and the resulting unrest would not have happened.

So the question about engineers ruling the world was posed to several thinkers, beginning with Tim Chapman, described as the leader of an infrastructure group. Chapman began by observing that politicians concentrate too much on the short term, while some others concentrate too much on the long term.

Engineers are able to bridge this gap. A world run by engineers would be more planned, more strategic, more organised.

But Chapman wasn’t willing to hand the engineers the keys to everything. While he wanted them at the table, he noticed one drawback that engineers need to overcome.

But engineers also need to change, too, if they are to sell their answers to a sceptical world. They need to be better story-tellers who bring society along with them, rather than trying to impose solutions.

Some of the other people interviewed in the article echoed the thought that engineers should be at the table, but no one was willing to let them be the sole arbiters of what is best.

Oddly enough, or perhaps not so oddly, there was one word that I was unable to find in the article.

That word was “listen.”

It’s fine for engineers to be able to tell the story of why a solution should be adopted, but it’s also necessary for engineers to be able to listen to the people who may or may not benefit from the solution. Perhaps the proposed solution is too expensive (see my first anecdotal example), or perhaps existing solutions are perfectly fine (see my second anecdotal example). Or perhaps the solution goes against a group’s most important cultural values; while foreigners are often baffled by Americans’ resistance to government dictates, the fact remains that American history has influenced us to resist such dictates.

So while engineers should be heard, they shouldn’t rule the world.

Marketers should rule the world.

Am I right?