When you are sitting in a huge lecture hall furiously writing down the past five minutes of information the professor has politely abbreviated for you in barely legible handwriting, you are not absorbing absolute truths discovered by saints of science. Instead, you are having a dialog with the students who once sat in your seat, teeming with curiosity and naiveté. Professors once sat in your seat, learning the same material with a shift in perspective, and then pass their own views to you. In this process, ideas are filtered by society and projected into various mediums, shaped by cultural demands and political needs. The captivating beauty of the engineering classroom is its ability to distill wisdom into chalk, but the looming danger is its ignorance of the interplay between humanity and engineering.
Just as society needs engineering, engineering needs society. Economic viability, social stability, and political usability all play an important role in motivating or stalling the development of engineering endeavors. Yet more importantly, products and projects must balance the demands of stakeholders, who invest time, money, and other resources in search of a solution to a problem. In the framework of business, these endeavors must demonstrate customer value. It’s within the structure of society that engineers must manipulate the constraints of the universe, in the form of physics and mathematics. It is the dream of the entrepreneur to find what should be invented, the job of the manager to determine who should be involved, and the goal of the engineer to calculate how it should be done.
Engineers are people who build products for people. Engineering is about making that happen. Though the focus is often on improving measurable, physical quantities, the most meaningful impact is the delight a product brings to its users. In fact, the journey may be more valuable than the end result, turning the process into a deliverer of happiness. But on a more basic level, engineers build bridges and trucks and power plants for people to use. Even though the forms vary, these products seek to accomplish functions laid out by clients, adding structure to contain and control the physical world. This structure then allows non-engineers to focus on their own goals, helping engineers in return, forming a positive feedback loop. This relationship is the method that engineering focuses on to develop positive results for society.
Easing this daunting task, engineers are embedded into society, using the very devices they devise. The work of engineers always exists within the context of society, because society is the source of meaningful problems and the resources to solve them. Without societal demand, there cannot be social impact. In turn, society frees engineers to work on problems by providing resources and a framework for the value to spread. For example, free time to brainstorm and test potential failures is derived from an abundance of sustenance, while marketing provides is a structure for worthwhile ideas to spread. The symbiotic relationship may seem to be an obvious result of specialization, but the tightness of the coupling should not be overlooked.
Despite all the theories and heuristics one can learn alone, engineering is fundamentally collaborative. Students and professors learn from each other and between one another. In the same vein, class projects are finished by teams, buildings are built by construction firms, and discoveries found by research groups. This sharing of information and proliferation of communication is key to the engineering process, and an incredible number of tools have been created to enhance the ability to communicate, which has further enhanced the culture of sharing. Engineers share knowledge via papers and presentations to help colleagues and to incrementally improve on the past to create a better future.
Yet perhaps the toughest issue in engineering culture is the communication barrier between engineers and non-engineers. In an ideal world engineers would communicate their value purely through the end product, without relaying the tremendous complexity of the task they have accomplished. Without any understanding of what has been done, it is too easy for clients to write off years of work as pointless, and therefore it should always be the responsibility of engineers to relay the value of what they have done. Even though a problem may be technically solved, conveying the limitations, the successes, and the uniqueness of the solution is key to getting across the purpose of the engineering process. Yet these factors will never be the sole determinants of value, and therefore each metric must be related back to the greater societal context. It is not enough to say that an engine is more efficient, it is necessary to explain how an efficient engine benefits the environment and quality of life. This one case illustrates the wide gap between the technical and the emotional.
Nevertheless, engineers are empathetic. One must have an ounce of selflessness to motivate oneself to solve the problems of others, and even more is needed to put in the work to harmoniously balance the contradicting demands and constraints of clients. But to begin to approach a problem, engineers must be great listeners. Clients often do not fully understand the problem at hand, and therefore it becomes necessary to extract their expectations from their subconscious signals. Similarly, an understanding of the various forces pulling on a project is derived from an educated empathy, and leads to a desire to achieve customer satisfaction. By serving as liaisons between the technical reality and societal issues, engineers are the translators between humans and nature.
Engineering is a language. The acronym-studded vocabulary facilitates the communication of precise concepts between engineers without reiterating entire subjects. But to do so, it requires a working knowledge of a tremendous variety of theories, each with their own notation and perspective. Despite this, communication between engineers is so effective because the need for clarity is self-evident. Terms are defined and equations are derived with a focus on straightforward, understandable logic. Language provides the framework not only to understand the environment, but to manipulate it. As a result, it is the philosophical fiber that links together humanity with earth.
Engineering is by engineers who live in society and work together to make the world a better place. Without people, there would be no clients or creators, who need each other’s opposing demands to develop great projects. This collaboration is complemented by the teamwork necessary to bring the disparate skills and perspectives behind groundbreaking developments. These teams are powered by effective verbal and nonverbal communication, which leverages the powerful emotional relationships that tie humans together. Then the products they build bring us closer to planet we live on, only making the relationship between humanity and nature more intimate. And that is why engineers strive to engineer with love.