No one doubts that engineers in Western nations are thoroughly trained to solve technological problems. But when solutions require more than technical expertise, some people have questioned whether engineers are equipped to solve global problems.
The issue was at the heart of a panel discussion sponsored by ASME in New York. It was the first of a planned series called Decision Point Dialogues, which are intended to explore engineering leadership and other critical issues facing the profession. The inaugural dialogue addressed the question: “Will engineers be true global problem solvers?” Problems with technology-only solutions often show up when engineers take on projects in underdeveloped nations. Roughly 60 percent of those projects fail within six months, said Bernard Amadei, one of the panelists.
Sixty percent of projects built in developing nations fail within six months, according to Bernard Amadei. The problem arises when engineers approach projects without considering broader, local issues, he said.
Amadei, a professor of civil engineering at University of Colorado, is the founder of Engineers Without Borders, an organization whose volunteers build sustainable-development projects in the world’s poorest regions. Technology is not usually at fault, Amadei said. The problem arises when engineers approach projects without considering broader, local issues. Outside engineers may, for example, specify a highly reliable pump, but fail to teach local people how to maintain it or to source spare parts.
Even in the developed world, where products are growing smarter and more connected, engineers must increasingly navigate new types of compromises to find the right combination of function and cost. Failure to do that can yield poorly integrated systems, products that are difficult to maintain, and designs too complex for consumers to use.
Amadei was one of 12 panelists, who included representatives from industry, government, non-governmental organizations, and academia. Robert Jackson, an associate professor at Columbia Law School, moderated the session. The Decision Point Dialogue touched many topics, from the profession's rapid turnover and the status of women in engineering to project-based curricula.
Using a format developed by Fred Friendly, the former president of CBS News, the seminar started with a story and a problem. Jackson challenged panelists to respond to issues involving specific people, places, and events.
The first dialogue revolved around two stories. One followed an American named Bella from middle school through her college level engineering education and to her career choices.
The second involved Kamillo, a boy in Malawi who figures out how to fix his village's broken water pump and then invents a faster way to recharge cellphones.
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The inaugural dialogue addressed the question: "Will engineers be true global problem solvers?"