Engineering and politics: strange bedfellows?


President Phil Peel and former President Peter Flinn at the Conservative conference in Birmingham

While autumn may be the season of mist and mild fruiting, in the UK it’s also the time for political party conferences.

I attended one for the first time in my life, the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, in early October this year. Firstly, I was struck by the sheer size of the event: both the Conservative and Labor Conferences typically have 12,000 delegates. On TV, we tend to only see the main ‘platform’ events, but there were 400-500 ‘fringe’ events on a staggering variety of topics. Plus, you also couldn’t help but smile at the energetic, loud, and vaguely musical protesters on the streets outside.

I spoke, along with a government minister, at an event that dealt with the important issue of transport decarbonization. Then I attended another ten or so events covering net zero, energy, innovation, and similar topics of interest. You might also have heard people talking passionately about prison reform, drugs, mental health, and Brexit, to name just a few. Surprisingly, there was very little sign of crude politics that seems to take place mainly on television and in the newspapers.

But what struck me most was the appreciation of the broader human, social, and political ecosystem within which engineering exists. In our profession, we talk a lot about ‘systems engineering’, to make sure we’re looking at the big picture. For example, we know that electric vehicles only make sense if they receive electricity from carbon-free sources and if there is extensive charging infrastructure. All this is quite obvious.

Ultimately, however, it is only part of the story. Any activity or project based on engineering, especially the most strategic ones, needs broad political support in the form of public perception, views of the press and opinion of pressure groups, as well as support, in the case of energy consumption, for example, in the form of individual changes. behaviour. Very often these factors are ambiguous and contradictory with no ideal solution, the opposite of the built-in engineering mindset.

This suggests to me that we engineers need to broaden our horizons a bit and realize that there is not always a right answer. Perhaps core engineering teams should always include people with humanities backgrounds. Perhaps engineering education should be broader and should be specialized at a later stage. And, even more radically, perhaps more engineers should step up, get active in politics, and start expressing opinions more assertively. After all, we always complain about the shortage of engineers in the UK parliament.

Our approach is one of rigor, which in turn breeds reliability and certainty, often in difficult circumstances. For example, we take flying for granted even though traveling at 500 mph at 37,000 feet in air that is -56°C and too thin to breathe is fundamentally quite unsafe, all as a result of painstaking engineering.

Perhaps this mindset is one that could be a useful addition to the political mix, especially at a time when our most fundamental societal challenge, climate change, is so reliant on engineering.


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