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Philosopher urges FIDIC attendees to embrace their role as public benefactors

It's not often that 500 engineers will meet in a room and listen to a philosopher. But that's exactly what happened...


It’s not often that 500 engineers will meet in a room and listen to a philosopher. But that’s exactly what happened at the FIDIC 2008 conference in Quebec City held last week, September 7-10.
The evening before the opening plenary session, some of the attendees weren’t too thrilled about the prospects of listening to the erudite ruminations of someone like Mr. John Ralston Saul. But this celebrated author and thinker, not only held his audience rapt for over half an hour, but made such an impact that his name reverberated in nearly all the subsequent sessions and workshops that followed during the three-day conference.
Saul is a novelist and a well known essayist and author, a humanist, political and economic commentator who is best known for recent books like, “The Unconscious Civilization,” and “The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World.” He is also famously the husband of former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. Saul’s biography says he was declared a “prophet” by Time magazine and that he is included in the Utne Reader’s list of the world’s 100 leading visionaries and thinkers. His latest book, called “A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada,” is due out later this month.
Saul, then, is not the speaker you would generally expect to hear at a conference held by ACEC (Association of Canadian Engineering Companies), AICQ (Association of Quebec Consulting Engineers) and FIDIC (the International Federation of Consulting Engineers). Saul is not even a businessman, let alone an engineer. But what made him so interesting is that he had clearly being doing what he urged his audience to do: he had thought long and hard about what engineering is, and what should be the role of the engineer. In a conference whose official theme was “A Strong Industry, Serving Society,” Saul put the emphasis on the latter half of the equation, and he set the tone. His talk took engineers back to their ethical base and urged them to put the public interest first.
Saul began by recounting an anecdotal experience he had in Afghanistan two weeks earlier. He had been travelling along “beautiful” new roads constructed by western engineers in a military convoy, but the convoy kept having to stop to make sure there were no bombs hidden in the culverts placed in every small dry stream crossing. Adding culverts is the norm in western road building practices, but they just became a problem in Afghanistan. The local solution would have been just to pour concrete in the river bed, he said, and put up with the few days a year when the water is actually flowing. Saul used the point to say that when western engineers go to other countries, they must first listen to the people and assess the situation there, before automatically assuming it’s best to apply western technology.
That theme of the importance of listening and taking into account the wider context of engineering, rather than simply concentrating on finding pure technology answers, recurred again and again in different sessions.
Saul recalled how important engineers were in the 19th century, when “engineers and doctors were on the leading edge of ideas.” Life expectancy in the west had doubled between1850-1920, he said, then he pointed out that it was “you, not doctors, who did this,” by creating sewers, clean water, and other infrastructure that provided the conditions for public health and cleanliness.
Engineers in the 19th century understood society’s ethical and social needs, and then they applied their expertise, Saul said. In contrast, today engineers are judged by what they do, not what they’re thinking about. Becoming technical specialists is reassuring to professionals, he said, because then they are judged by their peers. But to have engineers “out of the loop,” and not working first as citizens is a big problem for society. “You just happen to be in the top five or six professions that can influence the direction in which the world will go,” he said
Reading aloud the FIDIC mission statement, Saul noted that it puts engineers at the centre of its purpose. However, the rest of the world sees it the other way round, said Saul. In other words, everyone else sees themselves at the centre and their question is how can engineers fulfil their needs.
Education is the field where change must first be brought to bear, said Saul — another theme that was reiterated in a later session, specifically Professor Jeffrey Russell of the University of Winsconsin.
“Beware of the silo concept,” said Saul, and went on to urge consulting engineers to redefine themselves in a way that emphasizes the benefits they can bring to society’s wellbeing.