An edited version of this post will appear in the January 2012 issue of the Journal of Engineers Australia. The full debates are available at expressiveeng.com.au/debating.
“You guys are not as boring as what you’re made out to be.” With these closing remarks from the adjudicators on November 3, the engineers achieved a clean sweep of the Expressive Engineering Debating Series. On three separate occasions at NSW Parliament House, the engineers had out-argued and out-witted their famously outspoken opponents. First lawyers on who would make better politicians, then economists on who should solve infrastructure problems, and most recently architects on who should design the future; all defeated. How did this outrageous result ever happen?
To some, the debates themselves were outrage enough. One gruff email asked me in July, “Since when has this government been hiring out Parliament House [for a comedic event] and how do we put a stop to it?” But humour should never be discouraged, and both Craig Baumann (Member for Port Stephens and Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Planning) and Tanya Gadiel (former Member for Parramatta and Deputy Speaker) were generous in hosting the professions at Parliament. Humour is an excellent vehicle to express serious opinions and keep your friends at the same time. The comedy debates allowed the professions to state their cases freely and look beyond their stereotypes and grievances.
It took little time to find out what other professions thought about engineering. The lawyers and the economists had the same angle. “Engineers are too binary—either yes the bridge will collapse or no it won’t. Boring!” was Anthony Jucha’s assessment, speaking for the lawyers. Justin Di Lollo said the same thing for the economists. “Black, white. Zero, one. Tension, compression. On, off. Tiny little view into the brain of the engineer. A beautiful, yet simple, simple place.”Beautiful and engineer in the same description? An architect’s morning coffee would shoot from the nostrils in shock.
I brought these professions together because they rarely speak to each other, if ever, and having collaborated with the likes of concert musicians and surgeons in my engineering life, I’ve always believed that the best developments emerge from the intersections of different disciplines. Institutions are insular by design, established to serve the interests of their respective professions and members. They are not established to collaborate. (And it’s not as if these institutions haven’t had the time to communicate. The Law Society of NSW was established in 1884. Engineers Australia: 1919. The Economic Society of Australia: 1925. The Australian Institute of Architects: 1930).
What is it that made the engineers so successful at these debates? To begin with, there were some delicious lines that roused the audiences each night. How could a panel possibly accept that engineers would make better politicians than lawyers? By good fortune, the debate took place a few days after the federal election, and Andrew Pratley’s comment on the popularity of Gillard and Abbott (both with law degrees) was difficult to resist. “Australia had only one choice at the election, and that was to elect a lawyer. And what did we do? We rejected both.”
Whenever the engineers were attacked for being too “simple” or too “functional”, they quickly brought up some of the absurdities of their opponents. Take Athena Venios on economics: “‘Variable tolling’: charging more for the same thing. It’s still taking you as long [to cross the harbour] as it did when it was cheaper.” Andrew Pratley on architecture: “I just love the language from the architects. It’s the passion. It’s the divine. The ‘paradigm shifts’! I mean, how many paradigm shifts can we have? If I have to shift over here and shift over there and then shift back over. Can’t we just have one shift? Isn’t one shift enough? Your students must walk out and be perplexed about the world we live in!” And if there was any doubt about the absurd, Andrew brought his own hand puppets and sat them on the table amongst books of Standing Orders to make his points, just to be sure.
Yes, the engineers—including Richard Buckland, Maryam Khajeh, Rowan Peck, Andrew Pratley, Veena Sahajwalla and Athena Venios—were certainly quotable during these debates. More critical though was the persuasiveness of their stories—engineering stories—the kind of stories all engineers can use in their daily discourse.
Reflect on your strength. The engineering story lies at the centre of human prosperity. It rarely needs to justify itself. Engineering is rooted in realism, yet it constantly opens possibilities. Whilst economist Oliver Marc Hartwich labelled engineers “daydreamers”, all three architects insisted that engineers were too narrow-sighted, focussed solely on details. A fascinating contradiction, perhaps, but it’s just possible that engineers fill both descriptions. At the Lawyers vs Engineers debate, Magistrate David Heilpern commented in his adjudication, “I was very taken with people who could solve problems such as climate change and broadband. I was very taken with that argument. And mostly I was taken with the argument that politicians continually wear hard hats to impress.” Less than a year later, the Liberal Party blamed its election loss on its handling of broadband policy. To dream and to solve at the same time is powerful.
Looking back upon the debates, I empathise with the views of the lawyers, economists and architects—not because they are entirely accurate in their characterisations of engineers, but because engineers too often express themselves shallowly. If you think engineering is objective (or perhaps even binary), think again. We don’t make technical decisions because they are inherently correct, but because the choices agree with our judgments of the world. Houses can be demolished to make way for infrastructure on the recommendations—indeed, the arguments—of engineers, who promote a given solution over numerous others. Engineers are often loathed to appreciate the social complexities and aesthetics of their work, and by doing so we limit our potential and cripple our influence.
Debating is not the exclusive province of the wigs, silks and MPs. Debating is an every day activity for the engineer as designs are described, advocated and implemented. It was clear that these debates (and communication more generally) had an appeal to the broad engineering membership, with company directors, students and retirees sitting shoulder to shoulder in the full Lower House Chamber. In both private and public organisations today, communication pervades every branch and rivals data and evidence in importance.
And communication is not just an add-on to the engineering process. It’s far more than a glossy presentation. Great debaters are great observers, who respond to the diverse views of both the speakers and the audience quickly. Great debaters take advantage of opportunities because they aren’t stuck to their own script.
What scripts are we left with? Ask Anthony Jucha: “Look at your average engineer. Male; lives off defence contracts; watches MythBusters … short-sleeved shirt; some bits of Australian standards floating around; maybe a few patent applications which have probably lapsed.” And ask architect Adam Haddow: “Engineers are excellent people. They are occasionally well dressed … They are highly skilled and highly specialised. They are just not particularly good at talking to each other and seeing the big picture.” These perceptions need to be replaced. The debates at NSW Parliament House showed that there are engineers who are more than able to communicate and please an audience.
As 2011 draws to a close, it’s hard not to quote Steve Jobs one last time. “Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.” Marry it with law, economics, architecture and indeed politics too. Then the engineering brand might change.