Engineering under scrutiny

When my uncle started working for local Dutch engineers Hasselt & De Koning in 1965, the reputation of engineers and their knowledge was more or less undisputed. Science and technology had spurred economic growth during the past two centuries, and brought a car and television to practically every household after the Second World War. From the struggle against water in The Netherlands to the first man on the moon and the increasing control of deadly diseases, science and technology have contributed much to mankind. That is why I am proud to be an engineer.

Engineering in a hyper-critical society

These days, engineering knowledge is coming under greater scrutiny. The calculated risks of more complex projects such as those connected to energy transition and food security, are increasingly being contested by educational institutions and think tanks. Conflicting data then leads to a decline in engineering knowledge reputation.

I believe the key to resolving this phenomenon is to understand itby looking carefully at the relationship between technology and society.

As with many complex problems, a combination of scoping, assumption, and scenario-building can often aid the search for solution. They are based on judgement and hypothesis rather than fact; the problem can at least be disputed on the basis of strong counter arguments.

Stakeholder power raises the stakes

In our increasingly interconnected world where information is easily and rapidly accessible by a variety of stakeholders, there is now a ready alternative to simply accepting the reports or solutions created by engineers.

But it is not just about having access to other equally credible reports and data to support a particular point of view. It is also about the ease with which coalitions with other stakeholders can be formed.  Coalitions that support shared interests and are able to influence the proponent, their investors and even the authorities. And this trend is likely to continue.

Ultimately, addressing the situation comes down to how we deal with the political (rather than scientific) question of who decides on the interpretation of knowledge. This is why we are now seeing more and more contested data, conflicting fact sheets and expert disagreement, all of which are contributing to conflict, legal dispute and even campaign-bashing. In the best-case, that means permit processes may take slightly longer, but in the worst case, legal disputes may arise and ultimately even lead to bankruptcy. The costs in both cases can be substantial.

Getting the combination right

So how can we effectively progress the current situation while preserving engineering strength?

For complex projects, identifying the right stakeholders, setting up an engagement process and building in checks and balances to help drive public acceptance for example, are the minimum level requirements for any organisation looking to secure a social license to operate (SLTO).  But this is not an intellectual or technical exercise.  Relaxing command and control, and negotiating rather than calculating impact means building relations with those who may place a different value on emotional and intuitive knowledge. And that comes with its own challenges in terms of time and costs.

Robbert Dijkgraaf, former president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, recently stated that science and technology need to cooperate with the societal and behavioral sciences to find solutions to such complex issues.

I think the time for cooperation is now if engineering is to maintain its status and relevance in society.

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