Big Engineering

Address delivered at the (re)inauguration of KIC InnoEnergy, KTH 2015-02-11

Engineers are expected to give us well functioning, safe and reliable technology, so obviously we want them to concentrate their attention on the technology. But then again, we also want them to raise their eyes now and then to see the impact of their efforts, to see their role in society. And what a formidable role that is!

Engineers themselves are not very good at describing that role. Maybe they don’t raise their eyes enough to really see it. If they did, they ought to be much better at marketing their profession to young people. Considering the importance of engineering, every kid ought to dream of becoming an engineer.

Perhaps it is because they are modest. They hold back their contributions, describing themselves as marginal figures in society, when really they are everywhere and responsible for the human project from beginning to end. It is technology that makes us human. Without technology we were nothing but apes. Modern society is made of technology.

I want to give three examples of the big picture of engineering, of what we see if we raise our eyes above the technology itself. I want to say something about how engineers build society, something about engineering and nature, and finally something about how engineering defines business, shapes the market.

Builders of society
In the 20th century, engineers tried to hide their responsibility by pretending to be scientists. In universities of technology they were educated in mathematics and science rather than in innovations and world building. They were focusing on technology and the world that resulted was an add-on beyond their influence. But that has changed. Now we see more clearly the role of engineers as builders of society.

When we look back on the 20th century we are impressed by the role of engineers. In almost no time at all they built a whole new society! Lots and lots of innovations, automobiles, airplanes, telephones, radio, machines of all kinds. And they did an awful lot of building: cities, airports, roads. Think only of Europe after the second war.

One abundantly flowing, cheap, resource played an important role in making all this building possible. I am thinking of oil. Now there is a new such resource. Data is the new oil, the oil of service society. And now comes a whole new line of innovations: robots, sensors, artificial intelligence, big data analysis, visualization techniques, smart grids, smart homes, smart cities, and so on.

So in the 21st century engineers will build a whole new, a very different society. Oil will play a much smaller role. Electricity will be the favored bearer of energy. And energy will be cheap. If the world engineers gave us in the 20th century was big, slow and dumb, now they will make the world small, fast and smart. Internet will pervade everything, making everything connected with everything, everything accessible from everywhere.

Think only about what this may mean for energy production, distribution and use. We will leave behind the world with huge power plants and national infrastructures in favor of a world with small, local production units, local distribution nets and a continuing evolution of energy production technology. The energy system will look more like Internet, a dynamic network with lots of small, local producers.

Most likely the new world will be a world of big cities. To make those cities well functioning, efficient and livable, with systems of transportation, food and energy supply, waste disposal, housing and meeting places is an exciting challenge.

How exciting it is to be part of this great project, building a whole new society. What will it be like? Why don’t we try harder to imagine the future? Why aren’t the engineering schools filled with these sorts of discussions? Here are all the young people who will do the building! If they are to take responsibility for the result, should they not have an ongoing discussion about what kind of world they want to build?

Engineers build societies and of course they ought to take an interest in those societies, in how they become, what lives they make possible. Really, they are responsible for the way the modern world looks. Of course, you can blame politicians, and in democracies we are all responsible, but engineers more so than the rest of us. It is engineers who provide the means. Technology may be neutral, but whatever it does, it is a powerful enabler, making what was once utterly impossible seem natural and self-evident.

Artificial nature
Thanks to all the building going on in the 20th century we now live in an artificial world, a world of artifacts. The engineer is the one inventing and developing the elements of that world, and the one putting them all together in designing, constructing that world.

And as we come out of the 20th century we realize that we have to change our way of thinking about this world. The artificial world we have built is about to seriously damage the planet that we built it from. When we rebuild the world we have to do a better job in terms of resource efficiency, renewable energy, and so on. But we have to do even better than that.

We have to reach out and take responsibility for how our engineering influences nature. We have to stop thinking about the environment as something out there, nature as something we extract resources from, and then try to avoid contaminating. Don’t think of nature as an add-on. Think instead of engineering as modifying nature.

But how will this be possible if we are building ever bigger cities? Will they not become wholly artificial? Will it be possible to make the future cities more natural? And how natural can they be? Will it be possible to think of the city as modified nature rather than as an artifact outside nature?

We have to come up with new ways of thinking of technology and nature. Renewable, ecological, circular are ways of trying to merge technology and nature, seeing technology as a natural design activity, engineering as bioengineering, making nature itself artificial.

Market evolution
Politicians like to think of themselves as builders of society. We all know better. It is companies that build societies. Whatever we do involves the use of products and services delivered by companies. Politics may regulate the form, but companies provide the content.

All the building engineers do, they do in companies on the market. It is engineering that builds companies, that shape the market. Engineering you could say, is the DNA of the market. Standards, platforms, infrastructures are all technologies, and that is what the market is built from. By introducing new technology, innovations, engineering changes the rules of the market, making new business possible, creatively destroying old business.

It is not easy to see the results of engineering in the long run shaping society or changing nature. But it is even more difficult to understand the market, to see what openings there are, how innovations could enter the market and be successful. The market is a bit like nature. Just as every niche in nature is filled with organisms of different species in complex interacting ecosystems, so there are ecosystems on the market with companies competing and collaborating in complex and constantly changing ways.

In order for your engineering to have an influence on the world, to become something more than a pastime, an education, you have to enter the market. Like a mutation in nature, your innovation has to turn into a startup company and enter the struggle for survival on the market, offering products and services, identifying partners and competitors, invading a niche or creating an ecosystem.

Don’t think of the market as something external to your engineering. The market is not an add-on, a place where you apply your ideas, your technology. No, the market is where you do your engineering, relating it to all the engineering already going on. It is the business of engineering to change the world, and in order to do so, it has to enter the market, the struggle for survival, the evolution of society.

But the market is complex and rapidly changing. Windows of opportunity open and close. To relate your ideas to the market, to position your own work, you need to acquire knowledge of the market, its players, ecosystems and niches. And this is really the role of KIC InnoEnergy to connect what goes on at KTH to the market, to integrate education and research in the market, to make education and research real and not just an artificial game.

This means that KIC InnoEnergy and similar organizations will play a growing role in KTH as the school develops its education and research to engage and enliven all the engineering going on in society. KIC InnoEnergy will serve as an ever more important interface between the school and society, building bridges between education, research and the market.

Engineers without borders
Looking back on the role of engineers in shaping society one is struck by their modesty or, should I say, unwillingness to take responsibility for the role they play. It is as if engineers prefer to draw borders around their engineering activity, but I think that is no longer possible or wise.

One thing that the giant IT engineering companies of today, Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook, have clearly shown us is how such companies shape the world. By invading our everyday lives, they have made clearer than before how the shaping of society is an engineering project. It is all very well for such companies to promise that they “don’t do evil”, but as engineers in such companies one ought to really consider one’s role in building a new society.

Small engineering is what engineers do everyday, but sometimes you have to see the role of engineering in society, you have to think big, you have to reach out, follow engineering all the way to building societies, shaping nature, building companies, creating markets. And once you have reached out there is no return to the small world. You realize that as an engineer your arena is out there, in society, on the market. That is where your work belongs, that is where you test your ideas and see their result. And what a formidable result that is!

Bo Dahlbom