Redefining Engineering Vernacular

I’ve been using the word “engineer” a lot lately, and I really need to clarify what I mean by that.

It would be fair for you to assume I mean engineer in the traditional sense: an individual with an engineering degree who works in industry. Electrical engineers, civil engineers, even mechanical engineers like myself.

First lets take a look at the definition of engineering. From Wikipedia:

Engineering is the discipline, art, skill and profession of acquiring and applying scientific, mathematical, economic, social, and practical knowledge, in order to design and build structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes that safely realize improvements to the lives of people.

So when I apply my scientific knowledge of thermodynamics and fluid mechanics to design systems that heat, cool, and ventilate a building that people live in, I’m clearly practicing engineering. In my hometown, engineers apply their scientific knowledge of chemical engineering and physics to design and operate a facility that extracts chemicals from a dry lake bed, producing soda ash, sodium sulfate, and borax that are used to make glass, soap, and a lot more. Again, a clear cut case of engineering.

What about landscape architecture, a profession not typically associated with engineering?

Well, landscape architects apply scientific knowledge of ecology, biology, geology, hydrology, and climatology to design landscape systems that control the flows of water and wind in the built environment, impact (negatively or positively, depending on the design) wildlife habitat and migration patterns, are aesthetically pleasing, and guide the social behavior and psychological well-being of the humans interacting with the designed landscape. Landscape architects do engineering too!

It turns out that there are a lot of professions and practices that fulfill the definition of engineering: architecture, farming, forestry, et cetera. Anywhere you have people applying a knowledge of [some scientific field(s)] to [some design/system/solution to a problem] that [helps people in some way], you have engineering taking place.

At this point you may be asking yourself: “So what?”

I’m not interested in just talking to traditional engineers about traditional engineering. This is not an “engineering” blog. My last post about visual communication was obviously aimed at the more traditional engineering community, but my intended audience is broader than that.

Explaining that more people do engineering than are aware of it is one way of pushing the boundaries of the scope of traditional engineering practice, thought, and, ultimately, criticism. It’s why engineering criticism should apply to a broad range of projects and not just bridges, dams, and internal combustion engines (although those are certainly important projects to critique!).

The traditional cognitive divisions of professions – “engineer”, “architect”, “CG artist”, “educator”, “surveyor”, “carpenter”, “machinist” – are constraining. They put a box around what people think they can do, should do, are allowed to do, or are capable of doing.

“Communicate? Make artful drawings? Don’t be absurd! I’m an engineer!”

Exploring and poking at these cognitive boundaries, I hope, can help people break through them and discover new opportunities and ways of working and creating.

So when I use the word engineer, I don’t mean exclusively degreed professionals. I also mean garage tinkerers, techspace hackers, Kenyan jau kali workers, bamboo bike makers, illiterate mechanics that fab their own improved parts, poor farmers who innovate rainwater harvesting techniques in drought-stricken Africa, even the people who rig their refrigerators to lob beers towards the couch when they Tweet it. Are you using science to solve a problem, whether you understand the science or not? You’re an engineer. Welcome. You are the fresh future life-blood of the technical design community.

Part of what I’m trying to do here is to make isolated design disciplines more cohesive; I’m trying to mix things up. I don’t think specialization is all it’s cracked up to be. From one end I want to take engineering and mix in equal parts graphic design, narrative theory, ecology, architecture, sociology, philosophy, and DIY culture. I want architects, business people, realty agents, CG artists, and politicians to better understand the science and technology that underlies the world we all live in.

The word “engineer” is too constricting. It throws up too many cognitive restrictions and limited mental models. It’s too 20th century. You know what? This is the 21st century. If you want to create an architectural / interior design design-build studio where you dream up cool shit and have giant robots build it for you, borrowing management and process principles from software development, implement radically open business practices congruent with your deep passion for sustainability… you can just do it.

This is beyond engineering, beyond architecture, beyond any one profession that we grew up thinking we have to mold ourselves into. It’s a multi-interdisciplinary self-led adventure through the potential of human creativity and industry as empowered by the internet age. Maybe it’s the return of the Master Craftsman, version 2.0. Maybe it’s something totally new, Solomon be damned.

So when I use the word “engineer” in the future, keep in mind this post. And when you use the word engineer, or are thinking about different professions, think beyond an individual who can’t communicate except in tables and graphs and doesn’t know how to approach a problem except with a calculator and a spreadsheet. Realize that the practice of engineering is broad and the rank and file of practicing engineers is enormous, and the more we collaborate and share thoughts, skills, processes, and passion, the better we (and our designs) will be.

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3 Responses to Redefining Engineering Vernacular

  1. I like your idea of Master Craftsman 2.0.

    Sounds like what you’re getting at is that the traditional concept of engineer is tied up in the industrial age: cogs in the machine. It’s time to junk that for a holistic approach. I’m down with that. 🙂

    • flowxrg says:

      Cogs in the machine, nicely put. The machine is breaking down and all the old assumptions need to be requestioned… how to “do design”, specifically but not exclusively hard technical design, in a post-industrial age.

  2. […] design – engineering – has been enslaved to the narrative of Progress for over 200 years. Science and technology, […]

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