Article - Issue 10, November 2001

Facing out

Sir Duncan Michael FREng

Download the article (434 KB)

To be a 25 year old is to be still very young in the world of Academies. Youth has its advantages, such as open mindedness and the ability to change easily and being not yet locked in by the burdens of history. The fate to be avoided is getting old before one has enjoyed being young.

It is now time for our 25-year-old Royal Academy of Engineering to become much more outward facing. A great amount of very careful effort has gone into establishing The Academy soundly through its early years. This has been hugely successful. The Academy is recognised in the top layer of authoritative sources. The Academy can open doors.

To reap the benefit of all that diligent preparation, we will now take a greater interest in the circumstances of engineering and in the consequences of engineering, whilst continuing our established interests within engineering. We will learn how to consider a wider range of subjects, including the social aspects of engineering, and to look forwards. We will take on some ‘soft’ issues as well as the ‘hard’ issues where we have already established ourselves.

The outside world is changing fast and we cannot relate to society as it seemed to be when The Academy was being devised. We now live in a world characterised by huge surpluses, by an astounding ability to produce. We have been instrumental in that achievement. The problems today are those of excesses in global production and of distribution arrangements that have not caught up, or have not yet attempted to do so well enough. Surplus of supply exists in food, in energy, in textiles, in cars, in shops, in clothes, in education, in pharmaceuticals, in banks, in houses, in phone lines, in TV channels, in cafés and in capital. This hugely affects the position of engineers in society. They are in a buyers’ market now.

The primacy of nations as the unit of civilisation is reducing. Market rigidities are being reduced faster than they grow. We note all this in the form of increased competition and regret some symptoms, such as the drying up of quality recruitment of the young into engineering in most rich countries. One can see the future as a period decades long where the prizes will go to the communicators, to the outward-facing, to those who travel light. The old basic competencies will not so much be discarded as taken for granted: car batteries that do not fail, or tyres that scarcely wear out and rust proofing good enough that garages are used for gyms or storage and not to cover cars.

Low profile is the natural state, the default position, of any body. One has to feed profile constantly, consciously and with considerable forethought. Richard Branson is scarcely charismatic in the film star sense. His business is privately owned and is of mixed success. He gets his regular positive projection out to the public only by great effort.

A good, high profile goes with high self-belief and also with selfappointment. The Institution of Civil Engineers publishes a twice-yearly review of the State of the Nation on Infrastructure including roads, railways, regeneration, water, environment, housing and the like. It is perceived and referred to as an authoritative statement by many, including Government which rewards that Institution with higher status. The Royal Academy of Engineering has to secure a high profile in general society or at least amongst all educated society. It is not a question of good/bad profile but of high/low profile.

Facing Out is about both what The Academy chooses to do and also very much about how we choose to do it. We can have many more people coming through our front door, occasionally the general public. Our premises could become more accessible, more ‘shop’ than office, an inclusive statement rather than an exclusive one. Our exhibitions could progress so that one of our events would become a famous regular annual occasion in national life.

We could assiduously network with equivalent bodies. We could have ‘Friends of the RAEng’, in a range of packages for schools (for free), individuals (at a few pounds a year) and corporations (in grades at various thousands a year), with corresponding menus of good things in return.

For Facing Out to be valid, engineers need to be very clear that they are engineers and not tail-end scientists. If we do not see ourselves as a distinct species then we will never see how to offer ourselves to the world, nor even to ourselves. We will be pushed around by all the other forces of society and we will remain vaguely uncomfortable. We need an identity as well as an image. Is music Applied Science? Of course not – the idea is ridiculous – although music is based on only one substance, air, and has only two variables, amplitude and frequency. Then one plays with certain types of patterns, with the laws of physics always ruling. This seems to be well inside the domain of science. But no one in their wildest moments seeks to place music there, even though there is more mystery in a bag of cement than in a piece of music. Compared to music, engineering is infinitely richer in its sourcing, in its inspirations and in its interactions with people. Still, one has to stand up and say it.

At present the engineering community is reshaping itself to have a new purpose, structure, image, influence and name. It is exceptional and marvellous to have the commitment of Lord Sainsbury, the Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, to drive this along. Facing Out has arisen directly from our Academy’s development, but also from the general progress of all engineering and indeed of the country. These separate ideas and initiatives are in reality parts of one whole. Together we all succeed, maybe, but apart we certainly fail.

There is so much to offer. Our Academy has invented and helped to create some 20 professorships of Engineering Design for Sustainable Development in UK universities. Most are visiting, some are full-time, all have real-world experienced and are thoughtful people. This is a brilliant achievement. The concept captures not only all direct engineering but it takes us out into the context and the consequences of engineering. What we have yet to do is to celebrate this great initiative and to share it with the public. The Academy’s Engineering Committee enables a fantastic array of events, reports, studies and awards to happen each year. It owns an Aladdin’s Cave of fascinating and changing items. But we do not share them or celebrate them or put them out anything like enough, for our self-regard or the good regard of others.

There will be great changes ahead in the whole world around us, leading to changes in our priorities, in our relationships and in our methods. I see the enormous mass and inertia of the world as we knew it when we were 18 to be the impediment in so many contexts for those who are currently empowered and therefore could lead change. The wavelength of change seems to have become less than the length of a career.

Our Royal Academy of Engineering is moving to be much more outwards facing. We will take a greater interest in the circumstances of engineering and in the consequences of engineering, whilst continuing our established interests within engineering. We will learn how to consider a wide range of subjects, including the social aspects of engineering, and to look forwards.

[Top of the page]