29 July 2022
Every now and then, a commentary surfaces in mainstream media doing a reveal of sorts about the disparity between the important work that engineers and architects do day-in day-out and the way this work seem to be undervalued systemically. The latest article: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/6pm-it-feels-its-lunchtime-low-pay-long-hours-driving-away-singapores-young-architect-hopefuls-2763336
Those of us who practice will probably know how it has come to this. While the issues - some systemic - may be complicated to overcome, is there no good way for engineering or architect professionals to lead & build a career? There must be. And it might be found in Sustainable Infrastructure.
The nature of infrastructure has changed. The new imperative is Sustainability. Conventional approaches to infrastructure no longer meet all our needs. Conventional expertise are therefore unlikely to be adequate. Engineers must start taking advantage of the expansive opportunities in their role when delivering sustainable infrastructure. This is the opportunity to lead.
In this month’s Converging over Coffee series, we talk about 4 key shifts in the way engineering talents can approach opportunities in sustainable infrastructure to build a different future for their careers!
Solve a Bigger Problem
Do Work That Grows
Know The Why
Service, Not Services
4 Reasons Why Engineering Talent need to be building Sustainable Infrastructure
#1 Solve a Bigger Problem
Engineers get their rush from solving problems. And sustainable infrastructure is just a bigger problem that needs to be solved.
Building sustainable infrastructure involves additional fields of expertise and disciplines that are just as important as the physical infrastructure itself, which the engineers are familiar with. Environmental science, economics, scenario planning, data science, automation, cybersecurity, public education, social sciences… the fields involved depend on the project but you can be sure to find several of these if the outcome is to have infrastructure that pushes sustainable development goals.
It doesn’t mean engineers need to develop multiple fields of expertise. But if engineering talents want to grow rapidly and lead sustainable infrastructure work, the game-changer competency is to become highly effective at integrating these associated disciplines to deliver the final product - sustainable infrastructure.
#2 Do Work That Grows
You could probably build a great career if you’ve joined the right company… one that has a structure & a culture that is designed to provide opportunities for growth. But sometimes, the nature of our work can be a little too stable or even repetitive, and the trajectory of the business or industry can be a little too predictable. If you seek to create impact and to grow quickly into leadership roles, you will find a limit to how far you can get.
Growth has always come from the new… New competencies, new responsibilities, new experiences & insights. If growth is what we seek, staying still is somewhat worrying. For engineering talent to grow and lead, we have to seek work that grows.
Sustainable infrastructure is one of the most important endeavours of our time, the potential of which is still being defined. As it is now, there is still more aspirational intent than a fully-formed practice… partly because its execution is so very contextual. What we can be certain of however, is that there is so much room for creating new value that clients need, appreciate and will pay for.
Doing sustainable infrastructure means doing work that will continue to grow… in scope, in complexity and in end-user value. And growing together with that is the practitioner.
#3 Know The Why
Why do we build? Yes why, not what.
Engineering is often perceived as a discipline in mastering WHAT to do to get infrastructure built, and then HOW to get it done.
Sustainable infrastructure however is conceived as a practice in mastering WHY we are building infrastructure, and HOW to do it to maximize beneficial outcomes and minimize impact on the future.
While both pathways are probably necessary and noble, only one of them runs alongside the path of leadership.
If we develop a deep understanding of the ‘why’, we’re challenged to confront environmental, social and governance issues and seek possibilities for making progress in infrastructure sustainability through the process of engineering.
The big opportunity of our time is to build engineering leadership through sustainable infrastructure, by knowing the why and starting with the why.
#4 Service, Not Services
Let’s say there is an important infrastructure project to develop. Here is what tends to happen…
You assemble the key decision makers, you deep dive into what your goals, needs & aspirations are, you work out what it takes to achieve that, you consult your internal & external stakeholders on its form and requirements, you map out the performance goals & implementation roadmap… And then you call the engineer to figure out how to get it done.
I consider the work of engineers as some of the most important work for society at large. But to most people who are not engineers, that work is often thought of - or just labeled - as engineering services. This brackets the work into a generalized, almost commoditized, set of activities that just needs to be carried out, with little expectation of generating significant new value. If people believe that engineers are mainly good at making things work or only responsible for meeting requirements, then that’s why they think of it as engineering services.
With sustainable infrastructure, success hinges on how the infrastructure will serve a broad spectrum of needs, both now and in the future. Engineers are going to have to be a big part of sustainable solutions. Not by delivering Services right at the end, but by tapping the strong sense of Service that defines our work to lead from the start.
That long-held cascading method of delivering important & sustainable infrastructure is no longer the best approach, and is sometimes simply not viable at all. Not understanding the goals deeply and not integrating needs of stakeholders with engineering or technological solutions at an early stage makes for a long, convoluted and often painful journey that has little chance of achieving the intended outcomes. Engineers must recognize their role in this and start to own & steward the full journey.