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What gets left behind by the cutting edge?

Updated Wednesday, 13th April 2005

Tom Hewitt asks if a love of the new means other important technologies get left behind. This is a response to the second of Lord Broers' Reith Lectures.

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Collaboration and the importance of engineering (not science) to devise practical technologies as solutions to human needs are the two themes running through this lecture.

I was engaged by the broadcast and at first thought it was a non-controversial, commonsense approach to the enormous complexity of some of the technologies that lie – often unseen, still less understood – behind the most mundane of daily life in northern Europe or North America.

On reflection - and whilst enjoying the telling - I was not so sold on the arguments. Yes, the combinations of diverse know-hows have produced extraordinarily advanced products and processes, the economics of some of these are mind-boggling, and engineering inventiveness is indeed boundless.

Two views of technology: iPods advertised on Minneapolis public transport [Image: Mulad under CC-BY licence] Creative commons image Icon mulad via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
Two views of technology: iPods advertised on Minneapolis public transport [Image: Mulad under CC-BY licence]

But, is advanced technology (the speaker's emphasis so far) the only place to be I wonder? Does the drive to cutting edge competitiveness produce certain kinds of technology… and exclude others?

I am beginning to realise that the speaker has a particular concern about the state of British engineering; on one hand a lack of competitiveness on the part of the industry and on the other a lack of respect (or understanding) in the public at large (recall lecture one).

He is using the lectures as a rallying call on both fronts. This is a commendable approach.

However, I am looking forward to hearing about a broader approach to engineering than a focus on the cutting edge only.

As well as the feats of civil engineering to be found in airport terminals, or the wonders of GPS for motorists, I would also like to hear about the engineering challenges of environmentally-friendly, affordable housing, or the technologies needed for a sound and affordable public transport system, or how engineering can contribute to a global movement to ‘make poverty history’.

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