Plausible, Preferred and Desired Futures

In Futures work it is important that we are clear about the type of future we are discussing.

Let me illustrate using a contemporary example. Since the credit crunch across the political spectrum, in the Think Tanks and Media, in CBI and IoD circles everyone agrees to a need to “rebalance” the economy. In my parlance what we have is a competition between desired futures. The differing combinations of corporate taxes, incentives for R&D, investments in Science, Infrastructure and skills offered by different parties to the date are a combination of both content and process for building a plausible future though each part of the debate will try to claim that the outcome is more likely to be achieved with their set of policies and prescriptions.

Often commentators or individuals will claim a disinterest in or disdain of politics because "they are all the same". My experience is that it is very rarely true. In public policy terms the outcomes needed may well be governed by external factors. Even where there is a shared set of visions or outcomes, the process for achieving them may vary enormously. For instance some may see low corporate taxes as an enabler, while others see it as an outcome. Similarly with tax credits for R&D or knowledge transfer

A common mistake for new entrants to scenario planning is to create a “good” scenario and a bad "scenario", a desirable and non desirable future. The value of scenarios often comes from sets of plausible futures. By testing a plan (my desired future) against a set of plausible scenarios it is often possible to make explicit and challenge assumptions about the present and future that have not been fully understood or explored.

In turn, a step in scenario planning by many of its proponents is to look for scenario dependent and scenario independent components of a plan to help with risk mitigation and for monitoring early warning signs that the future is not what we expected, or hoped, to support contingency planning.

Where is this heading? Let me explain.

It is that time of year, and I am at that time of life when I’m visiting Open Days at various Universities. This year it is with a prospective undergraduate engineer.

I have recently visited Warwick University’s engineering department. It was an eye opener. Even though I might "know" it in an intellectual sense, to see the way in which IT is pervasive within civil, automobile, electrical, fluid, solar, and mechanical and process engineering, just to name a few branches of engineering is quite mind-blowing. I watched in awe of some of the stuff people were doing with £.5m CNC machines. Whether in analysis, visualisation, design or development and testing, IT is embedded in a way which for me and my cohort, undergraduates in the 70’s, is quite remarkable.

Listening to students and researchers talk about their projects across differing disciplines caused me to reflect on differences between the current cohort and my day.

In the 1970s, I think it is fair to say that there was almost "purity" in UK science and technology in HE. Business skills were for others, clients were a problem, who got in the way of the “real engineering”. There was a disdain for the researcher who “sold out” to business. Inventors would drone on about being ignored by investors. A little exaggerated maybe, but I would defend the tone of my argument in any debate.

Since John Harvey-Jones in the 1980s, Business has become a staple diet of TV. Today, the Apprentice and Dragon’s Den attract large viewing figures and people on them get saturation coverage in our media culture. Entrepreneurship is cool. Facebook and Twitter have a constant chatter about X’s performance on last night’s programme.

Reflecting on the people I met at Warwick, I saw something that excited me. Not only were these individuals passionate about their particular discipline, but the lessons across all the projects were the same.

Engineering is about problem solving

Engineering is inherently multi- and inter disciplinary

Project and programme management, and financial skills are as important as technical skills

Understanding the need and the context of the problem to be solved is the starting point.

I could choose any number of projects to illustrate the points. One that caught my eye was a solar energy solution for Botswana. Mechanical, Civil and Power engineers were working in a team. The solution they are seeking has to reflect the water shortages in Botswana. What might work in Europe with plenty of water doesn’t work in Botswana. The skill levels available in Botswana, means that a low maintenance design and operation is a prerequisite.

The young people I saw talked with a passion and an understanding not just about the engineering aspects but all the aspects to the problem and of their search for a viable solution. In at least half a dozen projects I could have put the people involved into the Dragon’s Den on TV. They would have outperformed many I’ve seen on the programme.

Now let me come to the crunch. By and large we don’t see these kinds of people on the Apprentice or in the Dragon’s Den.

The UK almost alone in the world does not see Engineering as a "Top Profession". Medicine, Law, Finance and so on all have a status that engineering lacks. In France, Finland, Japan, Korea, Singapore, India and the US to name a few, that is not the case.

Now think what your personal view of a balanced economy looks like. I’ve tried to think of a range of possible and plausible futures. My challenge is that I can find no desirable and plausible future without challenging our cultural baggage. Information and systems engineering, along with civil, structural, power and other engineering disciplines has to become cool. The Engineer as a hero is an enabler of any vision I dream up.

So, let me dream. It is 2015. "The Engineers" is Prime Time TV. Given a problem to solve, groups of engineers compete across disciplines to build a prototype. Twitter, Facebook and the Tabloids follow the people and their ups and downs with the curiosity we see today for would be entrepreneurs. When an 11 year old is asked "What do you want to be when you grow up?", they proudly say, "An Engineer". Engineers are invited to school speech days to talk about their hopes and passions.

No dinner party is complete without an engineer invited.

I’m not joking.

 A few years ago I was at a dinner in Helsinki with a variety of interesting folk from Government and Industry. The conversation, as in the UK, covered the Arts, Politics, and current events. However, people there were as able and willing to discuss Science, Technology and Maths as they were Wagner, Monet or the latest novel.

People like Brian Cox have made Science accessible without "selling out". The Eureka supplement in the Times is a good read. I think we need now to create the equivalents in engineering.

Whatever your politics, whatever your view of a balanced economy, do you share my reasoning about the engineer as hero?

How do we sharpen up the idea to make it "sellable". Who is the client?

As I said earlier, engineers are problem solvers. What’s your solution?

Am I fired yet?

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

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October 2017