Who are the future engineers?

Robert Hawley and Mike Tubbs explain why the whole definition of engineering is about to change.

The UK has just five to 10 years to establish itself as a ‘premier league’ nation to attract new, knowledge-based industries. Leading the assault will be engineers, scientists and technologists — but working in a dramatically different range of disciplines.

The engineer and technologist of tomorrow is more likely to be working in information technology, biotechnology or a mix of subjects spanning many of the old ‘traditional’ disciplines than in traditional civil, mechanical or electrical engineering. The next 20 years will see huge changes in technology, and in the business and working environment it serves.

This is the basis of the vision of engineering 20 years from now produced by the Hawley Group — a think-tank set up last year to explore how the UK can get the most economic benefit from its engineers and technologists. The group was created at the instigation of science minister Lord Sainsbury, with a remit ‘to lead the engineering community in identifying how to exploit the impact of technological, economic and social changes on wealth creation.’

Its work has drawn heavily on the views of working industrialists, and offers a view of the future of engineering which leapfrogs even those disciplines considered the most innovative today.

The vision that emerges is based on predictions of the technological, economic and social changes expected over the next two decades, and the kind of technologies that will be most important for the economy and our daily lives. It also takes a look at the kind of skills that technologists will need in this new society, and asks the most important question of all: what can today’s technologists and engineers do to ensure the UK economy has a healthy proportion of successful companies in growth areas in two decades’ time?

New technologies will be of profound importance. We have seen the early effects of the internet, but the foundations for this were laid two decades ago. The effects of biotechnology, advances in pharmaceuticals, nanotechnology, new materials, alternative clean methods of energy production, genomics and the need to ensure a sustainable global future will be even more significant over the next two decades.

Technological advances will be accompanied by economic and social changes. These will be based on new expectations such as easy access to knowledge which was previously controlled or hard to obtain. Access to knowledge will lead to the creation of global networks for basic and continuing education; global mobility for people and companies; and a more entrepreneurial spirit replacing bureaucratic or hierarchical structures at work.On the social front, there will be many more centenarians, and a substantial proportion of the labour force in advanced countries will be working on care of the elderly.

Replacement body parts and the control of ageing through drugs and medication will be major industries.

Select universities with international reputations will become established in other continents, but distance learning technology will mean that many less innovative universities may be forced to close. Skills will become outdated more quickly, so that they will need to be continuously updated.

The pace of change will accelerate. We can consider 2000 as the mid-point of a 40-year period, to compare 1980 with a vision of 2020. The box gives an idea of the changes that may affect industry, people and knowledge.

Wide implications

All these changes have implications for UK engineers and technologists, for the economy and for the UK generally.

The pace of change is illustrated by the FTSE-100, which started in 1984 with 66% of companies in manufacturing and retail, compared with 30% today. Meanwhile, the share of pharmaceutical, IT, telecoms and media companies has risen from 5% to 35% of the total. Fully 60% of the UK R&D is now accounted for by the IT, telecoms, media, pharmaceutical and health industries and this proportion is rising. The R&D of today is the products and services of tomorrow.

The changes by 2020 will be larger still. Companies in the new knowledge-based industries already add more value, are multinational, and depend on attracting skilled individuals. In 20 years from now there will be a small number of ‘premier league’ countries or regions which will attract the majority of this type of company and the skilled executives and staff who are needed.

Those countries or regions that understand the importance of tax regimes, low taxation of incentives and the quality of the physical, technological, entrepreneurial, social and educational infrastructure will succeed in attracting knowledge-based growth companies and scarce skills.

We have just five to 10 years to establish our position in this premier league. The technological revolutions now in progress give our generation the chance to influence government and industry to position the UK to exploit these changes. Engineering, together with science, creates technology. The engineering and technology community therefore understands better than most what is happening and can influence the course of events for the better.

Who are the ‘stakeholders’?

The Hawley Group is well placed to play a role in this. Through wide consultation it has arrived at a vision of the future of engineering, detailed in its Stage 2 Report published last August. Since then it has embarked on testing this vision with the broad engineering and technology community and its customers. Just as important, through work such as the Malpas Report The Universe of Engineering, which identified a wider community of people who in effect practise engineering while thinking of themselves as scientists or technologists, it has taken an important step towards understanding who these future ‘stakeholders’ of engineering will be in the future.

But we need to act fast, as the pace of change is still increasing. Innovative, knowledge-based companies depend not only on high-tech skills but also on goods and services provided by the ‘older economy’ companies. But such companies will only be successful if they embrace the new and rapidly changing technologies.

The businesses of the future will increasingly be knowledge-driven, no matter where they are on the path of change from ‘old’ to ‘new’. And all knowledge driven companies will depend on the skills of engineers and technologists.

Dr Robert Hawley is chairman of the Engineering Council, and a former chief executive of British Energy. Dr Mike Tubbs is a member of the DTI’s Future and Innovation Unit, and former group technical manager of BICC.

For more information, see www.engc.org.uk and click on The Hawley Group.