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New Zealand's Future Depends on Engineers

Media Release -

Monday, 1 December 2003

[This media release is based on a speech given by The Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand President (IPENZ) Gerry Te Kapa Coates, to stakeholders and MPs on Monday, 1 December 2003, at a Parliament reception.]

New Zealand's Future Depends on Engineers -
Five reasons why

When a massive power blackout hit America earlier this year, the first paragraph in some news reports said "Scientists are still trying to work out how it happened." As an electrical engineer, I know that these people would almost all have been engineers doing the thinking, - that is professional engineers, those university trained people who do the design and management of the technical things that surround us.

It always surprises me how scientists get all the credit for doing the work that I know engineers really do. It is engineers who provide the equipment for our primary industries, who design and run the factories that make the consumer goods we need, and who keep New Zealand's infrastructure, like roads and airports, going.

It is ironic that engineers' works are more visible than engineers themselves. We keep to our "small back rooms" or nowadays our computer desks. As a result engineers appear to be invisible, and might remain so until "the big one hits" whether this be an earthquake, or a major disaster, like a dam failure. Then engineers usually and suddenly hit the spotlight.

Here are my five reasons you need to know about what makes engineering essential for New Zealand's future, right now:

1. Engineers are involved with most things

There is almost nothing in life involving tools of any kind, that doesn't need an engineer's input at some stage. How to get this message across to a public that still thinks we drive trains or operate lathes is a hard one. Now it's up to engineers to move outside their design offices and start debating issues. They must educate the public and our clients - including politicians of the need for good technology.

2. Engineering is all about excellence

Doctors can bury their mistakes, but engineers' errors can be glaringly obvious, sooner or later - and expensive. There is nothing like hardened concrete to create a monument, be it good or bad. But if I had ever flown in Concorde I would have been reassured by knowing it was an engineer who did the sums to make sure it stayed in the sky, rather than an unskilled person. Engineers are highly trained and internationally recognised professionals. They work within a strict Code of Ethics, and have a worldwide international knowledge base, which they are always improving.

3. Technology is essential for a sustainable world

This is the most important reason. If we seriously want to save the planet and move towards a sustainable world then it is engineers applying scientific discoveries who will minimise the hardship of change. The next 50 years will be critical. Whilst the drivers of unsustainability are population, affluence and technology, the tightening of the ecological budget will also drive innovation. Right now we are living unsustainably - consuming our capital in a world borrowed from our children. But there are no magic bullets yet, no quick technological fix. It will need a combination of political will, and technical skill - from engineers - to achieve the changeover to sustainability.

4. Today's Government and corporations lack technical advice

Engineers have largely disappeared from government and ministries, and unless they were essential to the business of production often never existed in the corporate world other than as managers. Whilst engineers remain as consultants and trusted advisers to corporations and governments they are still outnumbered more than 6:1 by accountants, lawyers and managers, on corporate boards. Yet the analytical thinking that engineers use, is essential in a world that inherently involves technological decision-making.

5. Engineers must help make the decisions

With the demise of the large engineering ministries in government professional engineers have become relegated to commercial advisers rather than having a role at the top table. Engineers should not be seen just as providers of objective information. Their recommendations must be given equal consideration with financial and legal aspects. Furthermore engineers need to be involved when their recommendations as to future courses of action or strategies are being discussed at board or the political level. They mustn't be wheeled in for a few minutes, but be included as part of the decision-making team.

The vision statement of the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ) begins with "New Zealand and the global community benefit from the responsible leadership of the engineering profession in the uptake of technological advance; all people live prosperously and equitably, and in harmony with the natural world".

They know that engineers have something solid to contribute beyond mere designs and calculations. It's time to let them demonstrate that that is so.


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