Human beings have existed for millennia and there have always been thinkers, scientists and engineers. The discoveries of Galileo, Newton and Aryabhatta changed the course of our civilizations. However, the kind of growth we have seen in the last 200 years was never seen before. What has changed? What has facilitated this unprecedented technological advancement?
William J. Bernstein in his book The Birth of Plenty says that four institutions supported this advancement – secure property rights (both physical & intellectual), scientific rationalism (technology to product to commercialization), widely available capital and fast & efficient communication and transportation. If these were the factors, which changed our world in the last 200 years, what will enable change now to position us differently in the future? What will the engineer of the future look like?
In most parts of the world, there has been an improvement in the standard of living, yet we have more hungry people than ever before. While there is a need for the most sophisticated gadgets, there is also a huge population that is yet to fulfill their basic needs. We need to scale up the technology pyramid and provide high-end solutions, but also get down to the basics and solve fundamental problems. This will mean disrupting the paradigm.
While GE is known for contributing to advancement in healthcare by providing advanced technology solutions, our engineers have also designed a low cost ECG machine, which a doctor can carry to a village in their briefcase. The disruptive idea on cost was to use an off-the-shelf printer, which is used to print tickets on public buses. I feel that will be the way of the future. Engineers will need to have the ability to scale up the technology curve continuously and at the same time go to the basics and provide grassroots solutions. This skill will be the differentiator in a world where dichotomy is going to become the norm.
Just as the industrial revolution changed the world two centuries ago, the digital revolution transformed our lives forever. Now, it is the convergence of the physical and the digital worlds – the industrial internet – that will drive change in the future. Imagine all machines around us connected through the internet. It will disrupt the way we live. Businesses will need to innovate to disrupt their own business model before the competition does. With these opportunities, new threats will also emerge.
As some people say, future wars will be fought on the internet. But there will also be a need for new physical infrastructure. Imagine the bandwidth and electricity needed for 50 billion devices to get connected! Engineers will have to lead this revolution for us. The challenge is going to be not only in designing new devices, which can connect digitally, but also in being able to upgrade the current infrastructure (physical and digital). Till now, we have had great hardware engineers, who know how to design machines. We have also had great software engineers who have led the internet revolution. In future, as the physical and digital worlds converge, engineering skills will also need to converge. Simply put, hardware engineers will need to know and understand how software works and software engineers will need to know how a machine works. The two will not be able to stay isolated.
There was a time when engineering only had a few specializations like mechanical, electrical and civil. Sometime back, software was added to the list. Today, the list has expanded to more than a dozen – aeronautical, electronics, biomedical, marine etc. As we lead the advancements in technology, our engineers are becoming more and more specialized. We are building expertise and depth, which is critical for continuous advancement. However, someone famously said careers need to be similar to the letter “T”. Like a ship needs to have an anchor, engineers will have to have depth in one area, but to float one also needs to have the breadth. While we continue to get more and more specialized, engineers will have to be able to think and relate to how different technologies come together in a product or a solution – think systems.
Economies of scale have always provided a distinctive advantage to large corporations. It’s been a way to manage costs and has been their competitive advantage. However, size brings in complexity of processes & systems, hence, reduced speed. Google and Amazon came from nowhere and grew to what they are in a matter of few years. Today Facebook is threatening some of these big giants. AirBnb has no assets, yet it is one of the largest lodging solutions providers. A highly innovative idea moved with speed can disrupt the market in no time. Speed in design, speed in execution, speed in learning the consumer needs… speed everywhere. We don’t live in a world where every product and solution has to be perfect. Today we need solutions that meet the needs, but we need them fast as time is becoming a very valuable resource. Engineers will need to balance the rigor in design with the speed of delivery. Using an iterative approach to fail fast may hold the key.
As the world evolves itself, many skills will become more and more relevant. Engineering, I think, has the unique position to not only evolve with change, but also to lead it for us and for the future.
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