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Is everybody secretly an engineer?

17 July 2019

Is there anyone who's never asked "How does that work?" Emma Watkins, ICE President's Future Leader 2018/19, believes there's an engineer hiding inside every person.

Is everybody secretly an engineer?
Image credit: Ilya Ilford/Unsplash

I’m sure you’ve all been there – waiting on the platform for a train. The sign says three minutes, then one minute, then four minutes, then that dreaded ‘Delayed’. Nothing more than that – your train is no longer imminent, who knows exactly where it is, does it even (you wonder in your darkest moments) exist at all?

You're growing frustrated. The people around you are frustrated. Yet again, you're waiting for a delayed train. You have work to get to, the people around you do too, and there's a growing sense of frustration. People start to mutter.

“If we’d never privatised the railways, this would never have happened!”

“Why are they spending all this money on building that stadium and no money on upgrading this route?”

“I hate getting this train – I wish they'd just build a bypass then it would just make so much more sense to drive into work.”

A couple of people, with a sigh, a muttered oath, a stamp of the foot, turn and storm off the platform. Choosing God knows what alternative, some people have decided there's a better option into work for them. You wonder, too – should I take a different train? A bus? What are my other options? You're faced with a problem on how to get into work, and you choose a solution based on your experiences and your knowledge about your route.

You are, in a sense, thinking like an engineer.

When you're the only person who noticed that a problem's been solved

One of my first projects as a civil engineer was a major railway station upgrade, helping to improve the commute of thousands of people living in the south of England. Every single one of those questions asked by the people on your platform were asked by an engineer on this job – how can we best fund this project? Could we get some government funding? Is it actually a good idea to upgrade the railway, or should we focus on roads?

The only difference is, that in this case, the people asking the questions were paid to answer them.

I had a fantastic time on that project. I was a graduate engineer at the time and after telling everyone throughout my degree that civil engineering was about so much more than just bridges (which it absolutely is), my first job was to build a bridge connecting an old railway station to five new platforms.

The irony was not lost on me and it was a source of constant jibes, but I'm nevertheless extremely proud. That bridge (along with several other very impressive engineering feats) has improved the commute of thousands.

I’ve walked across my bridge multiple times since it was opened to the public and I’m still struggling to do it without getting emotional. The first time I walked across it I had a grin a mile wide on my face and the general public must have thought I was losing the plot.

None of them seemed to think it was anything special – a few of them walked across that bridge like it was their God-given right for bridges to spring up wherever they wished to tread. And yet, their commute was better, they were less stressed out and I was part of the team to thank for it, because together we had answered the questions they had been asking for years, waiting on deserted platforms.

Taking things apart to put it back together

I recently saw a little girl, no more than five years old, in a waiting room who was slowly and methodically taking apart a model dinosaur. Off came the legs, the head was removed and finally she was left clutching the tail.

All of a sudden she realised what she’d done – that dinosaur was now facing a life of suffering. I could see the horror in her face, the guilt as she looked at the tail. This was suddenly overcome with the look of determination only children can muster and she began, slowly but surely, to fit the dinosaur back together. Her mother leaned in to help... NO! This was her moment, this was her time. She was going to fix the dinosaur.

And she did! Taking things apart to put things back together, is there anything more stereotypical of an engineer? I myself, given the blueprint of a steel bridge, have broken it down into different sections so that they could be fabricated separately and put together on site (for all my training, a lot of civil engineering is just a complicated jigsaw puzzle).

This young lady, this potential stalwart of the civil engineering industry, held up Dino for the world to see: “Look Mummy! His head goes here and then I put his leg here and now he’s whole again!”

Mummy, ecstatic at her little girl’s success – “Look at you, you fixed it! You’re going to be such a good vet one day!”

I have a huge amount of respect for veterinarians, they're some of the hardest-working and dedicated members of our society. But I'd be concerned if vets routinely dismembered and then rebuilt beloved household pets.

This little girl was clearly interested in her dinosaur’s welfare, but she'd been particularly interested in taking it apart.

We're all born with the curiosity of an engineer

In the same way, I build my bridges to help improve the lifestyle and welfare of people around the UK, and love it because I have a fundamental interest in how structures work and are put together. She's no different from me, and I hope that she sees the engineer in herself before it’s too late.

We, as a society, need to recognise that we're all born with the inherent curiosity of an engineer.

Most of us, like the people waiting with you on the platform, have already got answers on how to solve problems, whether they be problems with trains, roads or public services. We're all of us thinking like engineers, but we're not all of us aware of it, and that's something that the engineers of today and the future need to address.

Let's remember what engineers do – we're problem solvers, we're the people tackling the questions that society asks.

But let's not forget that everyone's already solving these problems on an individual scale – people are already tackling the questions that they're asking themselves. Let's encourage that, and remind ourselves, and those around us, that engineers come in many shapes and forms, and that all signs point towards there being an engineer in all of us.

Do you have leadership ambitions?

Every year the ICE President chooses some of the brightest and most motivated graduate and technician members to be on the Future Leaders Scheme.

How to apply

  • Emma Watkins, ICE President's Future Leader 2018/19 at ICE