Intricacies of engineering

James Trevelyan
Monday, Aug 08, 2022

The Taj Mahal, Badshahi Masjid and Wazir Khan Masjid and many other examples of Islamic architecture have inspired generations with their beauty and grandeur. These structures also reflect the work of Islamic engineers in the form of foundations, cement, structural details, roof beams, trusses, water supply and drainage and so many other details.

The fact that these buildings stand in perfect alignment, without any obvious settlement, hundreds of years after construction, is an enduring testament to the skills of those engineers.

Muslim-majority countries such as Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia have produced some of the world’s greatest engineers and scientists. They graduate a couple of million engineers annually. Therefore, the relatively slow progress of Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia towards modern, sustainable, industrialized societies is puzzling. Productivity in low-income countries lags behind advanced economies like the US, Japan, and Europe by a factor of about five, a gap that has hardly changed in many decades.

Recent reports have blamed poor-quality teaching in engineering colleges and, at the same time, have conflated information technology and engineering. Productivity has much more to do with producing real goods: safe drinking water, food, electricity, housing, infrastructure, motor vehicles.

Recent research has shown that even with the best teaching and curriculum in the world, engineering colleges will still produce vast numbers of unemployable graduates. Why? Field observation studies (eg Domal 2010) have revealed how even the best educated engineering graduates can find themselves almost completely unprepared for engineering workplaces in low-income countries. Many graduates work as programmers, earning more than they can as engineers. An economist would conclude that they create more value by coding, indicated by higher pay, than as engineers, jobs for which they are supposed to have been educated.

While researching engineering practices in Australia, India and Pakistan over the last two decades I discovered several explanations for difficulties faced by engineers in low-income countries. Social culture nurtures complex inhibitions that can make critical knowledge sharing and technical collaboration much more difficult than in advanced countries.

Relatively few knowledgeable sales engineers represent specialized suppliers so extensive workplace education opportunities they offer are out of reach in low-income countries. Misunderstandings on finance can drive inappropriate decisions, and we found that few firms trust engineers enough to provide accurate financial information. Hence low productivity in engineering enterprises leads to higher real costs for services such as construction, manufacturing, electricity and safe drinking water compared with more advanced countries (for equivalent service and product quality).

Safe drinking water costs $50–$100 per 1,000 litres across South Asia compared with $3 in Australia. The cost is much the same, whether delivered in 20-litre bottles or carried from wells by women and children. There have been repeated calls from governments for engineers and startup companies to create new technologies to provide affordable safe drinking water services.

Research in engineering workplaces has shown how collaborative practices such as technical coordination, inspections and negotiations dominate the daily work of engineers; yet these practices are seldom even mentioned in engineering schools today, anywhere. Traditional assessment practices may be rewarding individual performance by students, and implicitly devaluing collaborative performances, as well as oral communication and reading which are essential for collaboration.

Even if these limitations could be overcome, subcontinental culture infiltrates awkwardly with technical rationality. Here is an account of one engineer’s effort to understand (Karen Coelho, 2004): She had to negotiate a labyrinth of plots constituted by rumours, illicit acts, and transgressive collaborations in order to enact or exert her own agendas of personal survival, responsibility to her workers and colleagues, and a wider official accountability.

Young engineers might be more capable working with these realities if they could develop insights on human behaviour that today come from social science courses like anthropology.

However, such fundamental education changes will take decades, perhaps longer. Education institutions across the world slavishly follow American, European, Russian or British engineering education curricula, without any significant local adaptations. This reflects the understandable desires of parents for qualifications recognized internationally.

For that reason, with many others, I am also working to improve engineering education standards in the US and Europe. Even in these countries, engineers turn in disastrous performances on major projects. One in six turn projects into piles of scrap metal where investors lose practically all their money. Only two in six provide investors with better than half the predicted financial return. Most project failures (and industrial accidents) can also be traced back to collaboration weaknesses reflecting education gaps. Fixing this will help lift performance standards globally, but it will take time.

More immediate improvements might be possible by focusing on the transition from education to work. Organizations employing engineers have most to gain from investing in professional engineering capabilities.

They could start with a more appropriate definition of engineering that emphasizes economy and productivity: Engineers are people with technical knowledge and foresight who conceive, plan and organize delivery, operation and sustainment of artificial objects, processes and systems that enable productivity improvements so people can do more with less effort, time, materials, energy, uncertainty, health risk and environmental disturbances.

I discovered a tiny number of Indian and Pakistan engineers who had learned for themselves how to nurture world-class engineering performance in local firms. The world could be transformed if every young engineer could learn from their efforts.

The newly published book, ‘Learning Engineering Practice’, explains some of the insights developed by these experts. The book includes a chapter specifically for early-career engineers working in low-income countries and an online appendix that provides a comprehensive curriculum guide for workplace supervisors to train novice engineers.

The writer is emeritus professor at the University of Western Australia. He can be reached at: