Chris Wise is a bit of a legend among UK engineers. Designer of London’s Millennium Bridge and Europe’s tallest building, the Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt, he is among the leading structural engineers of his generation; a fact recognised by the Royal Designers for Industry(RDI), who last year elected him to serve a two-year term as their Master. But get Wise talking about engineering, and he starts to express some very unusual views.
Engineering, according to Wise, is an art, not a science. And the fact that it’s considered to be a branch of the sciences by educationists and the government is an important factor in its poor image in society. While many in the engineering establishment bemoan the low numbers of graduates in recent years and wonder where the next generation will come from, Wise argues that the role of engineers has been fundamentally misunderstood, and that we might not need more engineers at all. What we need, he says, is different ones.
Wise’s philosophy has brought him great personal success in his field: he was the youngest-ever director of Arup in 1992; was named Imperial College’s first professor of creative design; and has worked with architecture luminaries such as Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano. In 1999 — a year after joining the ranks of the RDIs — he and two colleagues from Arup, Ed McCann and Sean Walsh, founded their own consultancy, Expedition Engineering, whose 60-strong team now operates from offices overlooking the BBC’s Broadcasting House headquarters.
Wise is only the seventh engineer to serve as Master of the RDIs in their 70-year history. Started in 1936 by the Royal Society of Arts, they were ‘originally born out of a marriage between the industrial arts, as they were called then, and the world of aesthetics. They wanted to recognise the contribution of industrial designers, but only those who designed beautiful things were included.’
Membership is an honour somewhat similar to a knighthood — a recognition of professional excellence and contribution to the field of industrial design — and the list of the Faculty of Royal Designers today includes such diverse figures as illustrators Quentin Blake and Gerald Scarfe, pop artist Peter Blake, iPod designer Jonathan Ives, animator Nick Park and fashion designers Zandra Rhodes and Vivienne Westwood.
But Wise points out that 17 per cent of the faculty are engineers of one sort or another, and he isn’t fazed by the prospect of mobilising the RDIs as a force to re-establish the link between engineering and creativity — a link which, he feels, has been sadly neglected for the past century.
‘There’s a huge confusion between science, technology and engineering,’ he said. ‘According to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) most people in creative industries in the UK are in software, computing, graphics, and communications; what people might think of as “frilly” design, textiles and fashion, are pretty small. Engineering, as far as the DCMS is concerned, is not a creative industry. That is a huge problem.’
Equally problematic is the pigeonholing of engineering among the sciences. ‘In my view, it’s not a science. That is completely wrong. There are many engineers who are scientists — at least they call themselves engineers, but what they do is analysis, and that is science. A true engineer is a designer. The difference between a designer and a scientist — and it’s as true for an engineer and a scientist — is very simple. If you’re a scientist, you look at stuff that’s out in the world, you take it into your head and you try to make sense of it. It’s observational; a conversion of observation into theory.
‘But an engineer creates things. They go from the inside of their head, and they make real things. Renzo Piano calls it “the turbocharged application of experience” — when you’re designing something, you bring together aspects of everything you’ve ever experienced inside your head. It happens very fast and you can’t rationally explain it.’
Part of the problem, Wise argues, is a lack of personal recognition for engineers, and a similar lack of recognition for the creativity behind their work. ‘Specifically in areas like energy and environmental design: these are areas where you couldn’t necessarily say the products are beautiful, but they are certainly elegant, and that elegance needs to be recognised.’
However, he said, the attitude has become so entrenched in society that the problem has become much deeper; in Wise’s view, the way engineering is taught is utterly at odds with the way engineers work, and this naturally discourages prospective students from joining engineering courses. ‘People who might be attracted to the profession don’t join it because they think they’re being asked to be scientists. They’ll say they can’t do maths or they’re no good at experiments.’
But this, to Wise, is the antithesis of what engineering is really about; it is based on a model that has been outdated for 20 years at least and probably owes more to the strictures of the post-War years than any understanding of contemporary industry or society.
Wise believes that in the 19th century golden age of engineering, when giants such as Brunel, Stephenson and Telford strode the Earth, the role of an engineer was entrepreneurial. ‘All these guys, they spotted a need in society, saw a way of meeting that need, and fulfilled it.’ But after the Second World War, the UK needed to make a great deal out of limited resources, so engineering was systemised and re-purposed.
‘Engineers gradually converted themselves from being entrepreneurial to working on nation-scale projects, and the entrepreneurism went into government, which is a very bad place for it because politicians think in the short term. Engineers found themselves on the receiving end of government policy, instead of driving it or influencing it. And there they’ve stayed.’
It’s because of this that there is now a perceived problem in engineering, he added. ‘When people say there’s a shortage of engineers, they should ask, What’s the point of an engineer at the moment? What do they do now, as opposed to what they did back when the big cruise liners and the railways were being designed? The answer would not lead you to hundreds of thousands of engineering science graduates who may not be able to do anything useful in the contemporary world.’
Two decades ago, said Wise, the staple diet of engineers was doing complicated calculations by hand. ‘The educational process is still geared at training people to do that. It’s a complete anachronism. There are a few people who need to be able to do that, but most practising engineers don’t. And if they do need to do complicated calculations, they get an expert, probably using a computer, to do it.’
Instead, Wise believes, engineering should be presented and geared as a problem-solving, team-working discipline. ‘Most engineers spend their career on projects, in the real world, on real sites, dealing with people, money and social issues, and they have to join all of those up into something. Gear the education process around that, so that it produces people who can produce these things, and they won’t be gifted mathematicians. They might even work much like graphic designers, or even artists, with the difference that they’ll know the end point is a physical product of some sort that people can use. My guess is we actually need fewer of them than we have now — but they need to be better.’
In fact, Wise believes engineers are best placed to deal with the big questions facing today’s society. ‘Politicians are concerned with being re-elected. Scientists are reluctant to take responsibility — they deal with facts — so it’s up to other people to decide what to do with them.
‘Social planners and think-tanks might decide how the world should be, but they have no method of actually affecting it. Engineers, as creative people, should be near the top of the tree as they can take responsibility for identifying the questions we need to deal with, because they are trained — or should be — to take multiple variables and join things together.’
And this, said Wise, is where the Faculty of RDIs, with their successes and experiences at the top of their professions, should help. Early this year, Wise is convening an extraordinary meeting of the faculty to discuss what ‘industry’ means in the 21st century. ‘It’s very important to reflect contemporary UK industry in the make-up of the RDIs. Their purpose is to be inspirational — if I see a really good graphic designer, or a fashion designer, or an aerospace or Formula One designer, I find their work amazing and I can learn from it, even though it’s not a field I work in myself.’
Wise returns to the status of the RDIs as an honour, like a knighthood. ‘In the old days, when you were a knight, you had a series of duties to perform. I’d like the Royal Designers to feel more like old-fashioned knights, to be role models and advocates, and use their talents in the public domain.’
And with that, Wise excuses himself with a striking apology. ‘I’m in the middle of designing the 2012 Olympic velodrome.’