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The World Engineers Convention (WEC)

GPA recently attended the World Engineers Convention (WEC) held in Melbourne from November 20-22. Six key themes were addressed at the convention, aligning to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Presentations discussed how these themes will influence the engineering profession and the role engineers will play in the future.

GPA Mechanical Engineer, Margaret Gayen attended the WEC Young Engineers Event while at the convention building connections with industry peers. Women in Engineering advocate, Nicole Brown, ex CEO of Robogals Global spoke at the event, sharing her passion for women to pursue a career in engineering. Margaret shared, ‘It was great to hear from Nicole and meet many other young engineers, particularly a great bunch of female engineers, and discuss our different backgrounds and aspirations for the future.’

GPA Principal Process Engineer, Francois Lambrechts, shared insights gained to GPA staff on his return to the office, insights that resonated with many.

Theme 1: How new technology and innovations are reshaping engineering

There is a great deal of fear about artificial intelligence, robots, machine learning and computers and how these will replace humans in various jobs. For me the interesting observation was that, when humans invented the bicycle, it didn’t replace humans, it replaced walking. So yes, machines will replace some tasks that humans do, and hopefully it will be the horrible or dangerous jobs no one really wants to do, but engineers should see technology as amplifying our abilities to analyse problems, process huge amounts of data and cooperate effectively. Engineers will still be needed to solve problems, and technology will be an enabler to solve increasingly complex problems.

Theme 2: Engineering for humanity: responsive design for greater liveability

This is where the message that engineers need to engage more with communities and other industries becomes clear. Solutions cannot be imposed on people; we all have to work together to ensure that our lived environment caters for everyone’s needs and is still sustainable. Solutions need to engage stakeholders better, and target outcomes that add value. We need to design ‘with’, not ‘for’.

Theme 3: Fostering diversity and inclusion

Clearly getting more perspectives on issues that affect us, and designing solutions that benefit everyone and the planet, will require skills, views and knowledge that are distributed throughout society. Gone are the days that engineers can be a “type”; we need to diversify thinking, and include all the perspectives we can to arrive at not only sustainable and efficient, but also equitable solutions to the world’s biggest problems. This informs who we hire, how we hire, who and how we promote, employment practices and working environments, and the way we interact with clients and society. Diversity is not about numbers, and it is not (only) about gender equality. It’s about getting the widest range of views on problems and applying the most holistic solutions. It is an active process: if we don’t intentionally include, the system unintentionally excludes.

Theme 4: Preparing the next generation of engineers

Projects are changing: they are becoming less like a list of tasks, and more like puzzles. We need to train engineers to be more outward facing, community and human-oriented and technology savvy, and become more thinkers than knowers, but at the same time teach the principles, techniques, and knowledge that underpin our profession. We need to foster creativity, flexibility and constant learning, because the world is changing at an accelerating rate and jobs will not look the same tomorrow as they did yesterday. This starts at a young age, not only at university or in the workplace. And it means engineers need to engage with schools and universities much more to ensure that we have future engineering resources, adequately trained and prepared for their jobs.

Another challenge is understanding the ethics of what we do. Many think of this as something you learn from experience, but in high impact jobs like ours you cannot afford to let people experiment too much – the outcome could be a disaster!

Theme 5: Engineering leadership, governance and influence

There is a belief amongst engineers that what we do is whatever society demands of us. But engineers work for clients. That means we have an opportunity to influence perceptions of quality, cost versus value, and risk versus innovation (they’re all related but not equivalent!). We are professionals and have to take responsibility for our actions. This can be tough in a world where behaviour often drives solutions towards what is simplest and quickest, but not necessarily in the best interests of everyone involved. We need to be strong leaders, and develop strong leaders. This includes being more active in government and communities, learning to communicate effectively with non-engineers, and working with other professions and vocations.

Theme 6: Our changing climate: mitigation, resilience and adaptation

This was probably the most confronting of the themes. The message from scientists, engineers and officials was clear: people are in trouble. It was reported that for every 1 °C increase in global average temperature, 7% of the world’s population has access to 20% less water. We have already reached 1 °C over pre-industrial times and are on our way to 1.6 °C before 2030. By 2050 this is expected to reach 4.3 °C unless we take drastic action. We are probably already too late to limit temperature change to the 2 °C set at the Paris Climate Accord, but we can limit the impact and mitigate the consequences by designing an environment that sets us up to cope with the effects we are already seeing.

To cater for the global population growing by 4 billion people by 2050 on top of the current population, we need to build the equivalent of one New York City every month to be able to house the additional population. Productivity in construction has flat lined, whereas productivity in fabrication has increased significantly. We need to apply technology where we can to take advantage of more energy efficient building and construction techniques, e.g., by bringing the factory to the construction site. We also need to decrease dependence on non-renewable sources of energy, decentralise utility supply to enable more rapid response to urbanisation and population growth, and start to view waste materials as a resource rather than something to get rid of. Many examples were provided of how engineers have already done this; one consultant has managed to change their business operations to be completely carbon neutral, and they have been since 2016.

It will take a concerted effort by everyone to get where we need to be.

Engineers can do this. We are engineers.