Jonathan ArmstrongWe need more ‘Geeks-in-Chief’ to bridge the gap between policy-makers and engineering writes Jonathan Armstrong, Director of Frazer-Nash’s international business. 

Are we on the cusp of a new wave of innovation, driven by governments taking bold policy action as they steer their societies towards a post-COVID normal? If so, what might that innovation look like, and what new collaborations may be needed to enable bold policy intent to translate into enduring change for society?

Bridging the gap between policy-making and engineering expertise will be vital to bring forth the innovation required. Across this bridge can flow thinking too often held in isolation. As new perspectives meet, we can more confidently develop big, bold ideas to address society’s most pressing issues. Bridging this gap has implications for how we think about innovation, diversity, communication and our professional networks.

Across the world, anxious viewers have tuned into previously little known Chief Medical Officers. In the UK, Professor Chris Whitty has become a household name, tellingly referred to by Guardian sketch writer, John Crace, as ‘the Geek-in-Chief, whom everyone now regards as the country’s de facto prime minister’. The vital element here is that these experts stand alongside policymakers, creating new co-dependent relationships that serve society. Trust in the message is enhanced, enabling a scale and pace of change in society that would normally be unthinkable. This offers positive insight into what may be possible.

Society needs our policy-makers and engineers to be co-dependent, yet all too often these communities of people live their professional lives in separate silos

The benefits that engineering has brought to people are based on systems that have become incredibly complex, and society takes much of it for granted — flicking a switch for power, turning on a tap for clean water. But these systems face cyclical challenges. After an initial period of societal transformation, systems become static and are driven by financial considerations. But then along comes change — a crisis like the coronavirus, or deep challenges like climate change, population growth, urbanisation, the demographics of ageing and changes in the nature of security threats. That is when innovation is required, and that is when engineers have to lead. But they can’t do it on their own. They need understanding, mutual respect and empathy at the intersection of policy and engineering.

policy engineering
Image: metamorworks via stock.adobe.com

We live at a time when many of our complex systems face challenges. At the same time, the technologies we have to help us respond to these challenges are evolving at great speed. To respond in the most effective way needs more ‘Geeks-in-Chief’ standing as equal partners alongside policy makers. This is a distinct type of innovation, a distinct type of collaboration.

So, society needs our policy-makers and engineers to be co-dependent. Yet all too often, these communities of people – you could say communities of thinking – live their professional lives in separate silos. Very few of our politicians and senior civil servants have an engineering background. Very few of our engineers need to win the hearts and minds of the public. Mutual understanding can be in short supply. So what does good look like? When have we navigated change to our complex systems before, with both social and technical drivers to consider?

Water systems can tell us about the great things that happen when engineers and policy-makers work together for societal change. Water is maybe humankind’s most basic need and one of engineering’s greatest contributions to society. Two millennia ago, politics and engineering combined to bring 300 million gallons of clean water a day into ancient Rome through a network of aqueducts, enough to supply modern day Sydney. In Victorian Britain, engineer John Frederick La Trobe Bateman worked with Manchester and Glasgow politicians to bring the transforming benefits of copious clean water to these cities. Water engineering played a major part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which lifted America out of the Great Depression in the 1930s. This time water engineering was meeting several of humankind’s basic needs – health, energy and food. Creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the USA, and its 29 hydroelectric dams, transformed the lives of millions, providing flood control, eliminating the malaria that affected 30% of the population, providing cheap energy to reform agriculture and industry, and raising living standards.

The crucial point here is that complex schemes should not be a matter of political dogma. This is vital, as history shows that transformational change is often led by government, bringing together policy makers and engineers. Once static, cost reduction for the consumer is then often market driven. This isn’t the politics of left or right. It is the engineering of understanding the best functional approach to the problem.

We need the best of what we all can do if we are to innovate solutions to society’s pressing challenges. We have a responsibility to do so, to draw a positive legacy from coronavirus’ countless individual sorrows. To do this, we need to look at three major stakeholders.

Policymakers

It’s time to fall back in love with big, bold and bipartisan ideas. Coronavirus gives us a common purpose, allowing policymakers to make bold decisions quickly, driven by the need to keep people safe. This has increased trust. But our muscle memory will pull us back to our old ways of doing things, implicit in the phrase ‘bounce back’. Instead, we need to ‘adapt forwards’, capitalising on this scarce moment when our collective thinking is unfrozen and change has rarely been more possible, for good or bad.

We need our energy systems to lead us to zero carbon, our security systems to keep us safe, our health and social systems to cater for ageing populations, our transport systems to keep us mobile in rapidly growing cities — and to ask how we can do all of these things with less dependence on global supply chains. We should at least be able to view this national conversation through the logical lens of an engineer, as well as the social lens of the policymaker.

Networking, hiring, training and advisory activities should seek to establish a new co-dependence and shared understanding between policy thinking and technical thinking.

Engineering organisations

Engineering organisations need to understand and respect the requirements that flow from a broad range of stakeholders and develop solutions that respond to these. The empathy to walk in others’ shoes will become an important part of the engineering life cycle and key to effectively engaging with policymakers. This should be nurtured through recruitment, competency frameworks and leadership development activities. For engineering to have its greatest positive impact, we need people who can understand each other’s ‘why’. This can only be achieved through diversity, delivering both equity and better engineering.

Individuals

Diversify your professional networks. If we are to forge a shared understanding at the intersection of policy and engineering, we need to go beyond our comfort zones and make less obvious connections. Continually develop your communication skills. Policymakers have a responsibility to listen to the sometimes quieter voice that stands up for technical complexity.

Let’s bring forth more Geeks-in-Chief who can bridge the gap between policymaking and engineering expertise. There has rarely been a better time, or a more important time, to do so.



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