Monday, January 7, 2013

The Three Headed Engineer

The problems associated with fixing America can clearly be seen with our crumbling national infrastructure.  The United States has been like many other advanced industrial democracies - - we have spent the last few decades managing or ignoring problems rather than tackling them head on.  We have managed to get some $2 trillion in the hole regarding infrastructure investments.  From crumbling bridges and highways, to an air traffic control system that needs a $25 billion upgrade, to an electric grid that is antique - - we have no elegant solutions to our infrastructure woes.

Our infrastructure clearly lacks the appropriate level of investment.  It also lacks careful planning and oversight.  How we fund and manage infrastructure can be inefficient and ineffective.  It is also subject to a Congress that allocates money to infrastructure projects based on politics, not need or bang for the buck.

Engineering is also a problem.  In a world requiring integrative thinking, the engineering priesthood produces far too few broad-gauged individuals.  Over the years, the act of design has gotten small and so have engineers (we have also turned design into more of a verb and less of a noun).  Engineers have forgotten how to think big.  We have gotten very good at "What is" and forgotten "What could be" - - a world of new ideas, new alternatives, and new choices seems to escape us.

The military understands it needs a new breed of leader.  A leadership well versed in politics, diplomacy, economics, and military strategy.  All get a sprinkling of these topics.  Certain selected officers receive a dunking in these waters more deeply.  In a complex world, a premium is placed on leaders that are adaptive and that have learned to think. 

Our infrastructure crisis needs a new breed of engineer.  We need strategies and strategists that can breakup the institutional concrete and rigidity of our dated thinking on infrastructure development.  If you want to know why our national infrastructure system is broken, you need individuals that can ask new questions.  This new breed must be more comfortable and confident with interdisciplinary thinking and resources - - less driven by convergent thinking and more determined to explore divergent and expansive ideas and solutions.

Asking the correct questions will require a new three headed engineer.  One head in politics; one head in economics/finance; one head in engineering.  Our infrastructure renewal will require surefooted interplay among the three heads.  The combination of public needs and private investment for your local water treatment plant will require a three headed engineer confident in project desirability, viability, and feasibility marked by a world of complex needs and limited financial resources.  Raising low water rates to help fund a project such as this probably breaks into thirds - - one-third of the time on consensus building; one-third on financial viability; and one-third on the engineering.  As you can see, two-thirds of this sample project is associated with the "soft skills" of engineering - - empathy, communications, persuasion, negotiations, and leadership.

The best and brightest of engineers will learn to manage their three heads - - and the nation will be better off for it.


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