Showing that engineering has beauty and a heart
From the October-November 2016 print issue, p. 4
Why should engineers give themselves awards?” asked Robert W. Lucky in an article posted late this summer online by IEEE. Lucky points out that despite our best efforts to engage the public in the wondrous achievements of engineers, awards fail to elicit much interest outside the industry. No matter how many press releases, tweets, and glittering black tie dinners: “Unless it’s a Nobel Prize or an Oscar, the public apparently doesn’t care.”
Even in our technologically obsessed culture people take the iconic building, the dramatic bridge, at face value. The beauty and what I’ll call the “heart” of a thing is what strikes the public imagination. The site of the CN tower pointing to the sky inspires awe in the onlooker, but most people don’t want to hear much about the detailed calculations and engineering that made the structure possible. It has to be said: for much of the public, engineering is just a bore.
The 2016 Canadian Consulting Engineering Awards published in this issue are some of the most complex and innovative projects that have been designed recently by consulting engineers. Some have beauty (Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre, the Mistissini Bridge). Most have “heart” in spades, in the sense of demonstrating a strong social and environmental consciousness (e.g. Whale Cove Arena, Low Level Road). Others are impressive by their sheer scale and power (the Mattagami Hydro and Eleonore Mine projects.)
But the engineering is hidden and behind the scenes. One building, the Westmount arena in Montreal, is even buried underground to avoid creating a bulky presence in an urban park.
And there’s an even bigger issue of communication. While certainly the awards are appreciated by the profession and consulting engineering industry, they don’t make the national headlines.
In order to assess projects the jurors need to know about their technical details, so the submissions are full of them. But we have to find a way to make that information more accessible to a broad audience. We have to find a way to explain in interesting ways, using plain language.
Some projects are written so well they immediately pop to everyone’s attention. But too often that’s not the case. Some are given long, technical titles that weary journalists looking for news will pass by. And the descriptions often use convoluted language, are overly detailed, and use terms and acronyms that are only familiar to specialists in that field. I can picture the companies’ communications managers urging the project engineers to simplify the verbiage, but meeting resistance because the engineer insists on being precise and accurate.
So we (and I include this magazine) have to trust people’s intelligence and find a way to tell our stories in more appealing ways. Then one day the public will sit up and notice that engineers are at the vanguard of efforts to make the world a better place.