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What we need to do to outsmart the robots

02 October 2017

Ahead of his speaking slot at ICE Shaping a Digital World, Mat Colmer of the Digital Catapult considers the role of the engineer in a digital future.

What we need to do to outsmart the robots
Image credit: Shutterstock

Game changing, transformational, disruptive, epic.

Countless superlative-style descriptions are given to the changes that are occurring in the architecture, engineering and construction sector.

Whether you have the gusto of 15th century explorers who braved falling off the edge of the world, or heed the 'here be dragons' messages that hindered the mariners of old, it is inevitable that our voyage will go from mostly analogue to entirely digital.

Some of the biggest concerns about digital transformation focus on what happens to our people.

Automation occurs all the time with software improving processes and computers running calculations but currently these are still checked by someone who must understand the calculations (hopefully the engineer).

The worry is what happens to the engineer when artificial intelligence usurps their position of knowledge.

When neural networks learn from past work, make efficiency improvements and transfer the designs effectively, through a single, collaborative model, enabling all other parties to know exactly what to build (that is if the build is not being undertaken by multi-axis 3D printing robots, as in the MX3D project in Amsterdam).

There is no denying that the pace of change is rapid, and in complex disciplines like engineering, keeping skills relevant is demanding.

However, there is not a skills crisis but a crisis in confidence about how the required change can be successful.

Many sectors face the fear that a machine will take jobs – that Johnny 5 will come alive. The confidence comes with being able to prepare for things to come.

You can't do epic stuff with basic people

Naturally, ensuring the right skills to keep pace with a transforming industry is important but this is not the only consideration.

Embracing transformational change is just as much to do with culture as it is to do with skills.

Culture is about how we work, interact and engage with people and many have acknowledged the blurring lines between disciplines. How we do this, though, is the key challenge.

With a changing culture, softer skills are required: flexibility, positive attitude and communication. Herein lies the rub, as engineering communication is an odd-duck.

On the one hand we have a group of well-educated people who are making the world a better place, with a firm belief in the way things should be and proclaiming to the world the benefits they can bring.

And on the other, we have engineers.

To be fair, this can be said of most science and engineering disciplines but the situation is not helped by their leaders, the professional institutions, appearing inflexible and closed.

The importance of leadership

Culture as a work ethic needs to be inspired and maintained from the top, defined by the leaders and their behaviours.

These leaders must be digital people not analogue people.

People with the wherewithal to reinforce the interpersonal skills that will be required to sell infrastructure to the public, work with and engage peer-professionals and lead the appreciation and understanding of what infrastructure is there to achieve.

This will allow engineers to flourish because they want to contribute to the change rather than feeling embattled with changes happening to them.

It's all about preparation.

Understanding what you have now and looking at your prospective needs will help you in the future. I will be discussing this in the context of transition engineering – an emerging field of change management – at ICE's Shaping a Digital World conference.

We will continue to need engineering.

As our populations get larger, cities reach capacity, infrastructure gets even older and resources get tighter we will require people who can achieve more with less.

So foster new approaches, encourage new disciplines, take time to build supportive environments, banish the dragons that signified the dangerous and unexplored territories on the maps of old and go forward with gusto.

ICE Shaping a Digital World

On Friday 13 October I'll be talking more about behaviours and skills for digital at ICE Shaping a Digital World.

Conference contact: [email protected]

  • Mat Colmer, senior innovation lead: construction and net zero at UK Research and Innovation · Full-timeUK Research and Innovation