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Elevating the Value of Engineering • Complexity

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

Part 2 of 5 for the November edition of "Converging over Coffee"

It's getting harder. We've got wonderful technology but engineering work is getting harder instead.

Most changes in the engineer’s work have taken place relatively gradually. The more obvious ones are around improvements in methods, supported by computing power in recent times. But it has actually felt like the work has gotten significantly more challenging, particularly in recent times.

Doing great work used to be about solving technical problems and overcoming challenges in implementing the solution safely. In fact, people still talk about the work of engineers like this. But those practicing will tell you that these days the problems we need to solve are layered with tougher environmental constraints, more acute business/financial drivers and a rising consciousness of the consequential impact on social needs.

To achieve these increasing important outcomes, the robust engineering methods that have worked so well are being challenged. In some cases, they are asked to be more optimized and get a more precise answer. In other cases, we are realizing that the answers from these methods do not form the full picture and that other methods & answers need to be part of the final solution. Multi-criteria assessments are now a common feature of the solutioning process.

To be fair, engineers are not strangers to these types of considerations. The big difference today is how tightly inter-connected each one of these layers are. A good engineering solution will not have much negative impact on the environment, but we now know that a good environmental solution might help us select a better engineering solution. Quite often, good environmental solutions can also achieve better impact if we change the way we design the accompanying engineering solution. As a result, the number of invested stakeholders involved in building a solution has increased, and with that more complicated requirements and processes.

Doing engineering work today can feel like trying to solve what people call a "wicked problem". Problem statements have become complex, interconnected & often contradictory. The desired goals & solutions are more diverse and less clear. The number of people involved with different agendas has grown. It’s basically the essence of Complexity.

But this is our reality when we're trying to solve the infrastructure gaps, build long term resilience into current day assets and develop solutions to address climate change. The real world stakes involved are high. And we will need engineers to be up for it.

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