Q&A: LOOKING FORWARD TO AN INSTITUTION THAT’S RELEVANT AND FIT FOR PURPOSE

Former IMechE President, Geoff Baker and Journalist, Georgia Betts, discuss the future of our engineering institutions and what’s next…

Georgia:

Leaving the negativity of the special meeting in the past, let’s look forward. You spoke in your Presidential address about an Institution of the Future being relevant and fit for purpose for the 21st century, what do you mean by this?

Geoff:

The Professional Engineering Institutions attract only 10% of the qualified engineers that could potentially be members of their Professional Institution.

These are often referred to as the missing 3 million. 3 million qualified engineers that presumable don’t see the current Engineering Institutions as being relevant.

The problem was summarised in an independent review of the engineering profession by John Uff QC in 2016, commissioned by ICE, IMechE and IET. The report says:

  • The Institutions are too numerous and have failed to engage with the profession.
  • The leadership of the profession is fragmented and ineffective.
  • The Institutions are failing to produce enough skilled and motivated engineers.
  • The promotion of engineers and engineering is ineffective.

In the UK alone, we have 36 separate Engineering Institutions, each one representing a specific engineering discipline. Whilst it is vital to have technical focus on different aspects of engineering, do we really need separate Engineering Institutions to achieve that?

What about the disciplines that aren’t represented by an Institution, the internet, graphene, AI, social engineering, robotics, we could name hundreds of technical disciplines and societal concerns that cut across all our Institutions’ activities. Do we create yet more Institutions to cater for all these equally important technical disciplines?

The harsh reality is, many of our Institutions will not be able to survive financially in the future. Certainly none of them alone will have the financial resources to create an Institution of the Future that is relevant and fit for purpose in the 21st century.

If we look at the demographic that will hit us in the next 5 to 10 years, engineers of my generation will be falling out of the picture in huge numbers, and not in time for the younger generation that we are now inspiring to take our place.

Change is not an option to be considered by us – it is essential. We cannot talk with any authority when we represent only 10% of the engineering community.

Georgia:

You talk about an Institution of the Future, what do you mean by this?

Geoff:

Our Institution of the Future, by definition, must respond to the needs of the future.

Our Institution has done a tremendous job over the past 170 years and we have some great traditions and a wonderful heritage. It can also be said, that we have done a pretty good job over the last 170 years in just surviving as an Institution in a world that has changed beyond all recognition from the world that existed in the times of our founders.

The society we live in today has been created and shaped by engineers and it will be engineers that will continue to shape our future. It is important that as Engineers we are organised together to meet the challenges we not only face today, but the challenges we will be facing in years to come.

Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and the exponential growth of technology creates opportunity for people to live longer, be more creative and live more fulfilled lives, but only if we address the social and political challenges brought out by these technologies.

Our work as engineers should be driven by the needs of ‘people’ and the needs of society and not by ‘technology’. Developing solutions for society that address our needs, not just for the obvious things, like energy, transport, food and housing, but for more basic things that make people’s lives better.

Georgia:

What do see the role of an engineering institution in the Future?

Geoff:

Engineering is at the heart of our society and Engineers must be at the heart of our Institution. It will be within the membership of our institution, by its sheer numbers and depth of expertise, that it will have the power and influence to help shape our society in the future.

We must have the technical focus that is currently provided by our Divisions and Groups, and we must remain the custodian of the exemplar technical standards required for the technical disciplines within Engineering.

However, we must have an open environment within our membership structure. One that allows for new technical groups, divisions and communities to be created around the existing and the new technical disciplines that will emerge from society’s needs associated with engineering. Our membership structures need to be more open, so they remain dynamic and able to adapt to the rapidly changing world we will be facing in the future.

Our membership also needs to be more inclusive and diverse, representing not only the needs of corporate members and professional registration, but we must also attract into our Institution the widest community of people who can play a role in helping to shape our future society. Because the problems we will be called upon to solve will be multi-disciplined and multi-dimensional.

We must create an environment where that talent can come together, not just great engineers and the missing 3 million engineers, but people from other walks of life, like social scientists, architects, educationalists, medical professionals, lawyers, political and community leaders even artists. Because the problems we will be called upon to solve as Engineers will be multi-disciplined and multi-dimensional.

Georgia:

What will attract people to join our Institution?

Geoff:

We need to understand the fundamental reason why, as human beings, we want to belong or to be associated with any organisation or body. Yes, it maybe because we get something back in return for our membership or association with an Institution. However, there is a more fundamental reason behind our desire to belong to something or to be associated with something.

We belong to something because we believe in its purpose and the values it stands for, not just because we may get something back.  Our institution therefore must have values and purpose at its core. It must not only define these values, but it must be seen to stand up for and uphold these values. Values that define how engineers should behave and values on the role that engineering must play in society.

Engineers and Engineering will shape our future and with that comes a huge responsibility and society will look to Engineers and our Institution to be custodians of those values. Because of this, not just Engineers, but people from all walks of life will want to be associated with and become part of our Institution, because they will believe in what we do and what we stand for.

Engineering today is multi-disciplinary and multi-dimensional; we need specialist knowledge, but knowledge now is so extensive, that we cannot begin to teach – at our universities and colleges – all the knowledge that engineers will require throughout their whole career.

Engineering education must focus more on how to be an engineer and what it means to be an engineer in society. Technical knowledge is now instantly accessible and available to us as engineers, in many different forms.

Learning today is not just something you do at the start of your career; learning is now a life-long process and our Institution must play a key role in managing this lifelong learning process for our Members.

This is great opportunity for our Institution of the Future, but it will require huge investments in Information Technology to deliver to millions of members across a global community. Which is another reason why we cannot do this alone, we must combine our resources if we are to achieve our vision of the future.

Georgia:

Are you referring here to the integration of the Engineering Institutions?

Geoff:

Yes. We are at a cross roads now and we have opportunities in front of us to make the first steps in creating an integrated, Institution of Engineers. If we can be bold enough to look forward and focus on that vision, we can overcome all the problems and challenges that can be brought up that could stop us from making that first step.

However, everything we do and any changes we make, must be driven by what our younger engineers, and our aspiring engineers, want from an Institution of the Future. It will be these engineers of the future that will be called up on to shape and influence every aspect of our society and we must provide them with an Institution that not only recognises the technical disciplines within engineering, but also one that unites all Engineers together with common purpose and an Institution that speaks for all engineers and not just the minority; an Institution with common purpose to serve society to create a better world for generations to come.

Our priority now is stop looking backwards and inwards at ourselves and to look forward to the exciting future ahead of us and our future generations of Engineers.


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