Is engineering really about solving problems?

Engineering is a field that is widely misunderstood.

One of the reasons for this is that it requires a significant degree of specialist knowledge. Whether you’re talking about software or civic engineering, to be an engineer is to have a level of knowledge that others don’t have. In turn, this means that the field is always going to be somewhat opaque to those outside of it. Or, at the very least, it’s going to feel inaccessible.

But another reason - and this is perhaps because of its exclusivity rather than in spite of it - is that the word currently has considerable political clout. You don’t have to look too hard to find western governments talking about the importance of STEM and engineering skill gaps. And although this is sometimes positive, such as the increased discussion around diversity and accessibility, a large part of the discourse is actually pretty bad. It’s not uncommon to hear calls for arts and humanities to be cut or ‘deincitivized’ in favour of STEM subjects.

A large part of this is the focus on utility and economic growth in contemporary political debate. Engineering, the thinking goes, is all about building stuff. It’s all about solving problems, which, supposedly, can increase economic efficiency and power growth.

This is maybe a bit of a caricature of a certain position, but it’s definitely real. Arts and humanities graduates are, apparently, a drain on the economy (never mind the value of the creative industries in the UK), while STEM grads are helping to construct a more wonderful, productive, and fast moving world.

When you add in the very real threat of climate disaster, engineering starts to look like the route out of a bleak future.

Of course, we can’t engineer ourselves out of climate chaos. The issues are complex, combining economics, society, technology, ecology, chemistry - an almost endless list of disciplines.

With all that in mind, this piece published last year by Logic Mag, by anthropologist Dean Chahim (which for some reason resurfaced on Hacker News today), is a great examination of what engineering means inside a complex ecosystem of dependencies, needs, and interests.

Engineering Mexico City out of its flooding crisis

By focusing on how Mexico City has been dealing with (or failing to deal with) its chronic flooding problems for decades, the piece is able to suggest that engineering doesn’t solve but instead “transforms problems, creating new and different challenges that burden other people—and future generations.”

It points out, furthermore, that “the challenge we face as a society is to build the structures of popular power to decide collectively which burdens are worth their weight, and how to distribute them justly.”

That sounds quite grandiose, but it in fact underscores the fact that engineering takes place within a whole nexus of decision-making.

Engineers don’t just build - they decide

The piece largely aims at emphasising the importance of decision-making beyond the scope of engineering - democratic mechanisms. But it also highlights, for me at least, what it means to be an engineer and what it actually involves. On the one hand to be an engineer is to be a decision-maker, but it’s also be someone who makes decisions in the context of many other decisions.

If we follow this line of argument we can even begin to see how the whole discussion of STEM skills needs to be changed. It also highlights that the rhetoric that flows from the political class about the importance of technical skills is based both on a misunderstanding of what those skills actually are as well as an ideological position that seeks growth at all costs.

There’s a lot more I could say on this, but I thought I should leave the last word to Chahim:

“…we need to change the language we use to think about engineering and technology. Saying engineers “solve problems” implies a kind of mathematical tidiness that doesn’t reflect our messy reality. This language suggests that problems just disappear or are neatly contained through technologies. Yet if Mexico City’s floods are any indication, we should instead talk about how engineers transform problems.

This subtle shift in language brings our attention to the fact that any ‘solution’ produces, inevitably, more and different problems—many of which may not be visible in the moment or place it is implemented, or to the particular group of people designing the intervention.”