Engineering, Change and Identity
In order gain a feel for the philosophical influences acting on the engineering profession I have started receiving daily news alerts from google. These snippets of current affairs can provide interesting insights into the wider issues that underpin the industry and inform philosophical debate.
By way of illustration, take today's batch of news items. Two stories rise to the attention of the philosophical enquirer - The first from the UK, by Douglas Friedl in "Scotland on Sunday" and the second from the USA, by Jim Mackinnon in "The Beacon Journal".
The scottish news article voiced the views of the local engineering industry, who were lamenting the downgrading of engineering in Scotland and suggested that engineering has lost its visibility despite the fact that it provides a vital foundation for the regional economy. In response to this allegation the article quoted the Scottish Enterprise agency who made the distinction between "advanced" engineering sectors that optimsed cross-cutting opportunities between industries and "traditional" engineering sectors (energy, construction and aerospace) that did not. The Enterprise agency considered that the future favoured these advanced engineering sectors over the traditional ones. It may be surmised therefore that it is not that engineering has lost its visibility or has been downgraded, rather that it is advancing and changing.
This advancement and change was the focus of the second article in The Beacon Journal. The article considered that the globalisation of sience and technology has resulted in an acceleration of; change, the development of new concepts and the application of new approaches. This effect is happening across all industries and disciplines and the article proposed that the only way to keep up with the pace of change was to create new collaborations, partnerships and systems for communication. And perhaps one may sympathise with the Scottish industries who are caught up in this whirlwind of change - for change can be hard to understand and accept and even harder to implement.
When change occurs we often seek to anchor ourselves to the set of core beliefs and values that have defined us and to which we have a desire to remain attached. In terms of the engineering industry it is the concepts, theories, skills and abilities that define what it is to be an engineer. In the new world of "advanced engineering" we must decide which of these are fundamental to enable the concept of "engineering" to live on. I am reminded here of Descartes search for fundamental truths and an insightful volume I more recently encountered, Viktor Frankl's "Man's search for meaning".
Engineering is perhaps having an identity crisis, which in itself is nothing new, but perhaps the crises which it perceives are getting closer to the core of its being. Its problems may be more existential, that is to say relating to its very meaning of existence. To overcome this semi-neurosis (semi- because we cannot say that engineering as a whole suffers from this kind of concern) Viktor Frankl would suggest that engineering must recognise that such problems result from being locked into memories of the past and to move forward engineering must focus on the future. To put it another way; engineering needs to move away from thinking about what it can do for society to thinking about what society expects it to do.
This may involve a philosophical paradigm shift or a retrenchment of established philosophical principles. Either way food for the mind of the philosophical enquirer