Sunday, March 25, 2012

Engineering and The Hunger Games

I had the opportunity to see The Hunger Games Friday night.  The movie is good and the book by Suzanne Collins is better.  In my opinion, this is one of the few young adult books and series that gets at several social, environmental, technological, political, and economic issues that should be important to everyone.  The book, granted it is fiction, has themes and issues that engineering should consider.  The Hunger Games is set in a future North America that is called Panem (from Panem et Circenses - - 500-years from today we will still be in love with Romans and in need of your Latin), a shining Capital surrounded by twelve outlying districts.  It is a world of tighter top-down government control and more authoritarian leadership - - a world in which the districts are required to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV (one of my initial reactions to the movie was the idea Steven Tyler would be right at home in the Capital).

The book addresses the starting point for this new world:

"Just as the town clock strikes two, the mayor steps up to the podium and begins to read.  It's the same story every year.  He tells of the history of Panem, the country that rose up out of the ashes of a place once called North America.  He lists the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained.  The result is Panem, a shining Capital ringed by thirteen districts, which brought peace and prosperity to its citizens.  Then came the Dark Days, the uprising of the districts against the Capitol.  Twelve were defeated, the thirteenth obliterated.  The The Treaty of Treason gave us the new laws to guarantee peace and, as our yearly remainder that the Dark Days must never be repeated, it gave us the Hunger Games."

Trends are important.  Are we moving forward or are we moving backward?  Are we worse off than we were in 1900?  How about 1975?  The trend line should be plotted periodically.  After watching the movie, Simon Kuper  just happened to have a great article in his column (Opening shot - Financial Times this past Saturday) - - Reasons to be cheerful.  Seriously.  Kuper listed five key reasons for a very un-Panem future
  1. Life expectancy is surging, especially in the developing world.
  2. Extreme poverty is falling worldwide.
  3. Freedom is on the march - - we are seeing a global demand for democracy.
  4. A drop in war and warfare deaths.
  5. Fertility rates are plunging almost everywhere (granted Adam Smith probably hates this one).
In many, many areas the planet is trending in a very positive direction.  But many potential environmental problems outlined in The Hunger Games are real.  The risks are real.  Engineering fundamentally needs a manifesto for action and cross-disciplinary thinking in light of these risks and uncertainty.  Call it the Three P's - - an engineering world in which prevention, prediction, and preparation drive our thinking as we march toward a future of global climate change and uncertainty.  A world where we move from risk to resilience.  A world where new innovation and uses of technology will be a big part of the story going forward.  A world in which engineers stop underestimating the risk of systems breakdowns and over-estimating the robustness of such systems.  A world where the things we design are both smart (i.e., they help us to avoid Panem-like problems) and adaptive.

A world dominated by the Three P's will also have plenty of the 4th P - - Profits.  None of this will be cheap and engineers will be in high demand.  I don't think engineering has a Panem future.

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