If you take a trip one day to the north-east pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, that spiritual home of Australian engineering, and search carefully around its granite walls, you’ll find the letters “J.J.C. Bradfield” and others inscribed there, in celebrated, confident bronze.
Kind of like how an artist might sign the corner of a painting they were proud of. There’s the same intellectual and public force about it, that something of value was created from nothing, and brought into the world for all our betterment.
But you wouldn’t get a sense of this while examining budget papers or financial statements. There you’ll find engineering creation as “expenses”, or “staff costs”, or maybe simply “wages”.
With that kind of language, it’s unsurprising then to see reports like “Engineering competitiveness requires change of focus” in the Australian Financial Review (8 December 2012): WorleyParsons is increasing its use of “high-value engineering centres” in the US, Malaysia, India and China to save money; more than half of Parsons Brinckerhoff’s design work is done in Bangalore, because “Australia should focus on project planning, project management and high-level conceptual design.”
Let me be clear: there is nothing inferior or improper about engineering work currently taking place in developing nations. I believe in their full global partnership, but I also believe this: those who create ideas win, and those who don’t, lose.
If Australia’s capacity for idea creation is hollowed out to achieve short term cost savings (and India and China won’t be cheap for long), the resulting nation of project planners will lose, and lose heavily.
An article I recommend to most people these days is “New world order” by Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee and Michael Spence (Foreign Affairs, July/August 2014), who state unequivocally:
… the real winners of the future will not be the providers of cheap labor or the owners of ordinary capital, both of whom will be increasingly squeezed by automation. Fortune will instead favour a third group: those who can innovate and create new products, services, and business models. The distribution of income for this creative class typically takes the form of a power law, with a small number of winners capturing most of the rewards and a long tail consisting of the rest of the participants. So in the future, ideas will be the real scarce inputs in the world—scarcer than both labor and capital—and the few who provide good ideas will reap huge rewards.
Great ideas are like great art: they can be used and studied over and over, reaping large and concentrated profits for their owners. Bridges are a case in point: if you’ve never seen New York’s Hell Gate bridge, stop reading now and have a look.
A nation’s prosperity—especially a small nation like Australia—will depend on its ability to create those concentrated profits. “High-level conceptual design” does not exist as an industry without the retainment of engineers and innovators through all stages of their careers. What then should executives do when pressured to find incremental efficiencies? As I’ve observed when giving my own corporate training, a far better strategy is to develop and broaden the capabilities of their engineers for greater output and, ultimately, more appealing, competitive ideas.
Dear Executives: Engineering is not mere labour. No. It is your future competitive advantage.