Many challenge the traditional role of engineers, suggesting their works and ways are incompatible with a sustainable future. Here Patrice Caine argues that as the world faces unprecedented challenges, engineers are the only real lever for bringing about, on a relevant scale, new ways to produce, live and consume.
Has engineering had its heyday?
This might sound absurd as we enter 2023 with an energy crisis, a global scientific and technical talent shortage, and a renewed focus on industrial sovereignty.
Yet, despite all these challenges, we still see a growing wave of criticism deeming technology incompatible with a sustainable future.
In recent times, this way of thinking has even taken root in some engineering schools, calling for students to change direction in the name of environmental protection.
‘Technology is a large part of the answer to the social and environmental challenges we face’.
Against this disturbing background, I feel it is important not to lose sight of some very pragmatic considerations – and to keep in mind that technology is a large part of the answer to the social and environmental challenges we face.
This is not to say that philosophers, sociologists and other humanities specialists have no role to play because we are going to need to rethink certain aspects of our ways of life fundamentally, our relationship with nature and perhaps even how we organise our societies.
But in the short term, at least, our priorities are to push ahead on renewables, roll out the next generation of heat pumps, develop new battery technologies, design passive-energy buildings, invent new low-carbon modes of transport, and so on. And how can we do that without engineers?
Whether we like it or not, our world is shaped by technology. It has been that way since our ancestors formed the first permanent settlements 15,000 years ago, and we know there is no going back now.
Engineers will always have a decisive role to play, treading the fine line between protecting the planet and enabling our societies to grow and flourish.
Others may have a deeper understanding of the natural world around us.
But when it comes to how we interact with our environment, engineers hold the answers. To refuse this reality – to dismiss it as ‘techno-solutionism’ – is to condemn ourselves to inaction and, ultimately, to a bleak future.
‘If you want to change the world, become an engineer.’
This is what we should be telling our children. Because it is this very discipline and vocation constitute our only real lever for bringing about, on a relevant scale, new ways to produce, live and consume.
Their insights hold the key to more informed policy-making, and their role is crucial to the resurgence of industry in our countries.
Of course, today’s engineers apply different methods and doctrines from those of their predecessors, and operating within planetary boundaries will likely become an increasingly important aspect of their work.
As an engineer myself and the head of a company that employs large numbers of engineers, I have experienced first-hand the shifts in the academic world and industry.
Leading engineering schools have overhauled their curricula to sharpen their focus on climate change.
And at Thales, for example, we have pledged to adopt eco-design principles for 100 per cent of our new products starting this year.
Finding solutions to the complex problems we face – solutions that take environmental performance and resource scarcity into account – is precisely what engineering is all about.
It is high time to restore engineering to its rightful place as a compelling vocation for young people worldwide.
Patrice Caine is a graduate of the École Polytechnique and the École des Mines de Paris and holds the rank of ingénieur en chef of the Corps des Mines. He had held numerous senior roles in banking and industry and served in several executive positions in the French administration. Patrice was appointed Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Thales in December 2014.