Engineers: we need to talk.

Something happened today which made me think about how we deal with ‘respect’, and the ‘old guard’ and ‘engineers’. I’m still processing what happened and many of the people I am discussing this with requests confidentiality, so maybe I’ll update this later once we agree on it all and have their permission. It did remind me of a few things, most notably a workshop on complexity we had in March 2018.

Sometimes when people ask me why Future Water exists, before I go into the transdisciplinary blah blah company line, I say that we’re trying to teach engineers to talk to other people. It started as a joke, because it was launched by a team who consisted mostly of engineers, and is currently hosted in the Engineering Faculty, but I am more and more convinced that is what our true purpose is.

In this post I refer to myself as an engineer, and as a not-engineer. Sometimes I use we, sometimes they. This is because I haven’t figured this all out yet, but also to show that I am learning to see the challenge from a variety of sides.

When we have workshops about anything other than processing engineering models or lecturing about engineering stuff, the engineers are less likely to show up. It’s like having transformation events where the people who really need to transform the most don’t bother showing up. I described it to someone as follows:

The challenge is to get the ‘experts’ into these things to participate and get vulnerable and risk being uncomfortable, because I think these experts (myself included) tend to go, you need us so we don’t need to play your silly games.

And then the engineers, or the conventional experts (in a technocratic world) get terribly upset when the other stakeholders go, well actually, and proceed to develop solutions that may be more expensive, or inefficient, or damaging to the wider environment, or just … different.

Learning how to relate

I find it fascinating, but tragic, how far people – and here I do think white men deserve a special mention – would go to avoid talking about things that make them uncomfortable. Look at how hard we are trying to build conversation after the movement. It’s also puzzling that so many people respond in extremes – ‘I can’t look at a woman in case she accuses me of sexual harassment’. No, actually, we are asking you to learn how to relate.

If we want to change people’s behaviour as it relates to water we need to listen to their stories as much as we expect them to listen to ours. We cannot shout at them, as environmentalists, or civil servants, or researchers…

I don’t think the engineering solutions we have available at the moment, the ones we use to make very big decisions on, have incorporated any of the social and environmental trade-offs we now have to live with. Engineering thought has a very narrow understanding of what is optimal, and that is, I think, what we as an ‘alternative’ is objecting against. We don’t have the technical models yet, we’re working on it, and we probably never will have the ‘perfect tools’ that engineers want. It’s hard when we get slammed as wrong, when whatever findings we do have get marginalised as ‘funded by the pro-movement’, and when the young engineers that are working on this get discounted because they don’t have 60 years of experience. We have to start somewhere, we’re not going to stop. Either play along and help us, or step aside. The power is not in your hands anymore.

I think engineers are recognising this. We’re seeing it in formal curriculum changes at university, in the interest that young graduates and post-graduates display for particular projects, in the small consultancies that are emerging with alternative solutions, and in the laments of the water industry that they are not recruiting new talent (still old and white and male after so many years).

Complexity as engineers look at it and how other people look at it.

Some engineers now style themselves as systems thinkers, or complexity modelers, or – insert buzzword here -.

Members of Future Water and advisors attended a closed workshop on complexity in March, and the whole workshop moved towards the very identity of Future Water. The workshop leader, an engineer who calls himself a systems thinker, was the same person who requested the workshop. He requested the workshop to be interdisciplinary, we had participants from multiple Faculties.

He introduced the aim of the workshop as ‘to create an effective analytical framework’, at which point a few attendees already questioned this approach. The conversation that followed was illuminating: I started the conversation by asking ‘what if the answer is no?’. What if we fundamentally cannot create this framework? The workshop lead asked, ‘would it help to remove ‘analytical’ from the phrasing?’ (I get the idea he wanted to dumb it down to shut me up and then put it back in later when I’m not there). No, said another participant (not an engineer), you need to remove the word ‘framework’. He added that this idea in itself is ideologically driven. You could almost see the gears in the workshop lead’s head seize up. Engineers NEED frameworks. We NEED boundaries, and briefs, and expected outcomes. We have the fundamental ideology that if you have enough information you can do enough to, if not find the answer, find something good enough to work on and plan for – in this case the “resilience of the WCWSS (Western Cape Water Supply System)”, nothing more, nothing less. The conversation continued and the lead tried to employ metaphors to explain to us his point of view. He used something like ‘fitting the pieces of the puzzle together’. But the participants interjected again: There is no jigsaw puzzle. No matter how hard or long we puzzle and think and analyse, we won’t get even a gappy picture. The metaphors we use are part of the problem. We hope to do something, because we feel we shouldn’t do nothing. And so if we do something, we need to make boundaries. But what if we should do nothing? The process of doing something is in itself political.

At this point I became frustrated enough to say “To be blunt, engineers as a stereotype are ignorant toward our own ideology. And we feel entitled to feel this way. One cannot make someone see if they choose to be blind”. The non-engineer participant then responded, trying to soften my blow, that I may have overstated. He then paused for a pregnant moment and then said, but I’m right.

Another participant then added, we need to take seriously the skills to do technical work, but also the skills to interrogate those technical skills. We need to understand how we learn. We need to be more cognisant of our own blindspots.

I think that when we say this to or about engineers, they feel personally attacked. I think men think this when we say this about how they relate to us and to each other. And for this reason I think it is a problem that most engineers are men.

Another colleague asked what lens are we seeing this question through? I think she knew damn well what lens, but as examples she said, there’s political ecologies, socio-hydrology, before she called the elephant out in the room – there are lenses that are legitimate that go beyond the technocentric. It could be systems thinking but we need to understanding the relationships between these lenses. But the engineers in the room could not see this, and left in frustration as soon as the workshop concluded. Afterwards the workshop lead expressed his disappointment that we can’t ‘just move on from this’, but I think he fails to see how much his thinking prevents this from happening.

“recognizing citizen science includes valorising the contributions –
to understanding (and addressing the demands of) the natural world
(physical as well as ideational) – of those conventionally regarded as
outside the community of scientists. It involves recognizing and
accepting that there are other than conventional scientific ways to
analyze the world; valorising those as just as legitimate and useful
for relating to that world as are those of conventional science; and,
importantly, accepting that conventional science is not and cannot be
divorced from the historical, socio-economic and -political context/s
out of which it came and that enabled it to become as dominant as it
has. – Mugsy Spiegel

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