Engineers’ role in shaping smart cities needs to be more visible, says Professor Kayvani of Aurecon

Professor Koroush Kayvani is Global Director of Excellence and Expertise at Aurecon writes about engineers and their role in shaping smart cities. 

Understanding what makes a city resilient, sustainable and future-ready requires serious collaboration between government, urban planners, scientists, economists, ecologists, sociologists, architects, and engineers. Through this close-knit partnership, we can connect the software, hardware and ‘heartware’, giving the city its own unique buzz. In Dubai’s case, this means making it the happiest city on earth, in accordance to the vision of its Ruler, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Unconventional engineers

Today’s problems are messy and increasingly complex, whether it’s designing smart cities, eliminating poverty, or mitigating climate change.

Building a smart nation will need smart engineers: not ‘smart’ in just the technical sense, but more unconventional smarts. For example, being engaging, persuasive, collaborative, or co-creative – traits not normally associated with stereotypical, introverted engineers.

Take, for instance, the current initiative for Self-Driving Smart Transportation in Dubai, which aims to convert 25 per cent of the total number of trips in Dubai to driverless trips by 2030. I would argue that building a closed environment for autonomous environment would be the easy part. The harder part would be the infrastructure of the transition phase – where driverless vehicles can operate safely alongside human-controlled ones.

I believe that engineers have an important role to play in designing the shape of our future. We are already doing it, through being responsible for designing and building the infrastructure upon which our human progress rests. Without hospitals, roads, electricity, or even WiFi – how different our lives would be!

Unlike architects, much of our work is invisible and often taken for granted. It is only when things don’t work e.g. metros or lifts, that the engineer is summoned (or blamed). So, we tend to be looked upon as the problem-solvers.

It’s time for engineers to be more visible and play a more active part in the design of a better future. A good example is how Elon Musk changed the energy debate, setting the agenda for the modern energy market as opposed to following someone else’s direction.

But how?

Renaissance engineers

Firstly, we must retain our technical mastery of our chosen field. Whether we are a civil, mechanical, or IT engineer, we must be true masters of our craft, thus enabling us to speak from a position of authority.

Secondly, we have a need to develop soft skills such as communication, collaboration, design and transdisciplinary thinking. This will allow us to be more persuasive, like Mr Musk who is able to bring ‘nerdy topics’ to a broad-based audience and fire their imaginations.

I suspect the second will be harder of the two for many of us. The science of engineering teaches us to apply the immutable laws of physics and maths in order to develop solutions to problems. The solution is either right or wrong; either something will work or it won’t.

But having a technically correct solution is no longer enough. We must be able to incorporate the human element in our solution. And that is never black and white; more often it is a spectrum of greys.

To be a T-shaped engineer – one with deep technical expertise and broad-based soft skills – is not a pipe dream or wish. It can be done. At Aurecon, we are not waiting for the future to happen. Instead, we are already actively developing engineers of the future through our in-house Design Academy. We take good engineers and make them great with an intensive programme where they focus on activities such as art, abstract modelling or gamification to build expertise in skills not traditionally associated with engineering.

Disrupting engineers

Disruption is not new to the world of engineers. In the last 50 years, we’ve gone from slide rules to Auto-CAD to designing in 4D. We have seen our jobs outsourced to cheaper locations. Ironically, if an algorithm can be written to automate something, we are often the ones to do it.

I am frequently asked whether an engineer can be replaced by artificial intelligence. My response is this: any engineer who can connect their technical mastery to human needs will not be easily replaced.

As the designers of the infrastructure upon which Dubai’s success rests, we owe it to ourselves and the communities we serve to disrupt our traditional function and play a bigger role in shaping its future.

Professor Koroush Kayvani is an Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney; a Visiting Professional Fellow of UNSW; and a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Cape Town and travels the globe inspiring the brightest engineering minds.

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