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Science, Maths & Technology

The engineer as problem solver

Updated Wednesday 13th April 2005

Can engineering solve the world's problems? Nick Braithwaite offers a response to Lord Broers' second Reith Lecture.

The Engineer as Problem Solver. In 2002 we chose this as the title of a second level Open University engineering course that covered a wide range of technical topics including structures, dynamics, energy, endurance and human factors.

In it we recognize the importance of creating from a team of individual specialists a ‘machine for creating engineering solutions’. Effective, interdisciplinary communication is essential. The most important element for innovative technology, yet the hardest thing to teach, is creativity.

Broers makes some important observations on how creativity has been fostered of late.

First, the importance of co-operative work within teams is seen as the hallmark of today’s advances.

Second, he notes that your team must be working at the forefront, inspired by the latest findings and spurred on by the most immediate needs.

Third, he suggests that when innovation is given free rein the long-term consequences are virtually unimaginable.

Less clear are the roles of commercial and political incentive. Does the imperative for wealth creation inspire technological creativity?

When does the framework we have for patents and intellectual property obstruct and when does it promote ingenuity.

Department Of Defnse equipment [Image: Reivax under CC-BY-SA licence] Creative commons image Icon reivax via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
Department Of Defense equipment [Image: Reivax under CC-BY-SA licence]

Does a drive for military supremacy ever hijack the creative sparks? Managing innovation is a worthy pursuit for industry and for governments, but it may mean doing less, rather than more.

In helping our engineering students to become problem solvers we encourage them metaphorically to pick up the problem and turn it over in their fingers and to reflect again and again about the need that led to the posing of the problem in the first place.

In fact we suggest that what technologists should do is not so much to solve problems as to dream up, or create solutions. It takes a good deal of faith to leave time and space for creativity to give birth to the next generation of the unimaginable.

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